On Permanence: Barbara Shawcroft's 'Legs' and the Challenges of Public Art

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Barbara Shawcroft's Legs (1975-1978) is a three-story-tall public sculpture, situated in the eastern end of Embarcadero BART/Muni station. It largely resembles masses of rope, but it is made from Nomex, a flame-resistant synthetic material developed by DuPont and used to create gear for firefighters. It was commissioned for permanent placement in the station at the behest of the original architects, Tallie Maule, Hertzka and Knowles Associates (Finland/U.S.), who required a budget for the installation and maintenance of two large sculptures at either end of the station as part of their design; Stephen De Staebler's Wall Canyon (1975-1977) is situated at the opposite end of the station. Both pieces won placement after an open competition. Despite initial arrangements, Legs has only been cleaned twice in 35 years. Today it looms in the station like an abandoned monument and is strangely compelling despite its obvious neglect.

BART's proposed 2014 Fiscal Budget suggests decommissioning the sculpture, with a potential budget of up to $300,000 dedicated to this legal and technical process. An initial public hearing was staged on May 23, 2013 to collect public input about the proposed budget as a whole; the total budget exceeds $1 billion and the proposal regarding Legs is but one line item. A second public hearing is scheduled for June 13, 2013; the board will vote on the budget that evening.

Though the cost of cleaning the sculpture is substantially less than the cost of decommissioning it, the proposed budget presents removal as the only option. The impetus for decommissioning the sculpture is unclear. Why change anything now, after so many decades? Text from the budget proposal addresses the difficulty of maintaining the sculpture, while also acknowledging that limited efforts have been made to clean it over the years. Few would argue today that its placement makes sense: airborne soot is an issue in any train station -- but it was designed and placed with this concern in mind. In conversation, Luna Salaver, a BART spokesperson, suggests that larger capacity concerns should be taken into consideration, but this is not stipulated in the proposal, nor is there any assertion of hazard.

On the surface, the debate about decommissioning the work seems to be rooted in aesthetic subjectivities, at a time when permanent public art is a receding cultural value. The public hearing on May 23 was filled with more than a hundred union employees waiting to address labor issues. It is easy to see how a sculpture becomes superfluous in the short term, but public works find value in longevity. Even the artworks that fall out of vogue -- or never found it to begin with -- are considered visual culture in the longer view of history.

Barbara Shawcroft, Legs, 1975-1978; installation view, 1978. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by William Hocker.

The issues at stake in decommissioning public art are complex, beyond the fact that the funds could benefit a substantial number of other creative initiatives. The proposed decommissioning also raises larger questions about the sustainability and permanence of public art in an evolving cityscape. When Legs was commissioned, the station was brand new -- today it services 11,000 passengers per hour during peak commute times. Increasingly public art is moving towards temporary gestures, often privately funded, to circumnavigate divided public opinion, bureaucracy, and dwindling arts funding -- the recently launched Bay Lights is a prime example.


How the trend towards impermanence will affect cultural memory remains to be seen. Part of what we love about looking at and living in cities is the built environment and its layered histories. Temporary works enhance the built environment, but their destination status is limited, whereas permanent public works become the landscape. For better or for worse, Legs stands out among large-scale public works in San Francisco for its unique presence and public accessibility. It is also noteworthy that there are relatively few public works of this scale by women artists.

The built environment -- architecture, monuments, and public sculptures -- reflect the aesthetic values of the era. Legs is no exception: it was developed out of the 1970s textiles and fiber arts movement, to the extent that it is often mistakenly referred to as "macramé," a seventies icon if ever there was one. The original orange color, still vivid beneath the accumulated grime, is also reminiscent of its time. As such, it is easy to disregard the work as outmoded -- but that is subjective. For everyone who thinks Legs should be removed, there is another who would argue for it to be left in place. Opinions about what should happen to the sculpture are varied. No dominant opinion presents itself. In fair disclosure, I wrote about this scope of opinions about Legs for Art Practical in 2011. The diversity of opinions about the sculpture is, perhaps, one of its most compelling attributes.

In an interview for this article, art historian and curator Peter Selz, founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and a member of the committee that commissioned Legs, was emphatic in his response to the proposed decommissioning: "Seeing the old photo of how it originally appeared in its color, I feel strongly that Legs should be thoroughly cleaned and well maintained. Certainly it should not be removed without the approval of the artist."

A recent view of Legs

Others are inclined to suggest that the work be situated elsewhere given the unsuitable conditions of its surroundings. Patricia Maloney, director of Bay Area-based arts journal Art Practical notes, "The commissioning bodies of this work of art (the BART Board and the City of San Francisco) have the obligation to keep the work intact and relocate it to a more suitable exhibition environment, where the proper conservation work can be undertaken and which efforts would have more lasting effects." She goes on to suggest, "The BART Board may consider donating the work to one of the area's collecting institutions, particularly those that are invested in the history of Bay Area art. The de Young Museum, the UC Berkeley Art Museum, and the Oakland Museum of California all come to mind as potential homes." Further, she notes, the San Francisco Arts Commission should "take this work as a case study in public art maintenance, and review the current amount allocated for conservation for the Central Subway commissions."

Shawcroft, now Professor Emeritus of Design in the Environmental Design Department at University of California, Davis, is surprised that BART would propose decommissioning the work without consulting with her. "Why wouldn't they simply clean it for a fraction of the cost of what they are proposing," she asked recently. Shawcroft also points out that the sculpture will be nearly impossible to remove -- the rope alone weighs 8,000 pounds, plus it contains a stainless steel support structure bolted to the station's foundation. "In the interest of a secure installation," she said, "safety considerations were enacted nine times beyond what was necessary. It was designed to stay in place. Moving it will be more costly than BART might realize."

Josh Faught, an artist and Assistant Professor of Textiles at California College of the Arts, sees the argument from both sides. "Although I can see the value of preserving the work, there's another part of me that wishes the city [sic] would leave the piece as is. The capacity of textiles is one of witness. They have the remarkable ability to absorb the patina of history. Textiles are, by nature, ephemeral -- so it makes more sense to allow Legs to rot and blacken as a reflection of its experience." As the work has hung in the station for nearly 35 years and has done just that, perhaps the best scenario would be to let history to takes its course.


BART is hosting a public hearing to review its proposed budget on June 13, 2013; the decommissioning of Legs is an item in the proposed budget. Interested parties may attend the public hearing or submit comments in writing to the BART Board, c/o Ken Duron, District Secretary, 300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA 94612 or via email to kduron@bart.gov. Please post your opinions in the comments section below. What do you think should happen to Legs?