Artist's project in jeopardy due to dog killing

October 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A disturbing act of animal cruelty decades ago could kill two proposed art projects in the city. It's not the art that's the problem, but the artist behind them. More than 30 years ago he killed a dog on camera. It's a past that the San Francisco Arts Commission just recently found out about.

A hearing took place Thursday with the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare and they decided to take a stand against the artist. The commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to the Arts Commission and the Board of Supervisors demanding the city rescind its contracts with Tom Otterness -- a world renowned sculptor with a controversial past.

Otterness has repeatedly apologized and in some places, including San Jose, his apology was accepted. Outside the entrance to San Jose's Happy Hollow Park and Zoo are more than a dozen bronze statues which are whimsical depictions of the animals and rides kids will find there.

In 1977 when Otterness, now 59, was 25 years old he adopted a dog from an animal shelter and shot it to death as a film project. He has apologized and in a statement to ABC7 News said, "It's really an inexcusable act and when I try to explain my act, it just sounds like I'm trying to justify it, and it's just inexcusable."

When asked if she was aware of Otterness' past, San Jose Cultural Arts commissioner Patricia McDonald said, "Yes. He hasn't done anything atrocious since. Why do we continue to castrate somebody or to chastise them for the rest of their life?"

McDonald said the San Jose's Cultural Arts Commission unanimously approved hiring Otterness to create the sculptures for the zoo's remodel last year.

The artist has two contracts pending in San Francisco. One is $750,000 for an installation at the Central Subway Project and the other is $700,000 for a piece at San Francisco General Hospital. Both are now on hold.

"It was an act of pre-meditated animal cruelty and I don't think our city tax dollars should go to someone who did that kind of an act, such an unforgiveable act of cruelty," said Sally Stephens, president of the Animal Control and Welfare commission. She said his art has no place in San Francisco. "Most people now when they look at the art won't see the whimsical, cartoonish characters that the art portrays. They're going to be thinking about the fact that this was a guy who killed a dog."

"It's unconscionable to me to imagine our money from San Franciscans being used in this way. It's just makes no sense," said Geneva Page from the Animal Control and Welfare Commission.

Members of the commission are unconvinced Otterness is truly sorry. They say as far as they know, the artist has never done any animal-related charity work or donated money to atone for his past.

"You know, Michael Vick has done a lot of things with education and put some money and put some words behind things. Whether it's totally self-serving or not is another question, but at least it was there. And if this individual hasn't done that, then it raises the question of whether he's really contrite about what he did," said Jack Aldridge from the Animal Control and Welfare Commission.

Back at the San Jose Zoo, parents we talked with were unsure if the artist should be punished for his past. Some said young people make mistakes and others said an apology may not be enough.

The San Francisco Arts Commission said it found out about the artist's past after it had already awarded those contracts. The commission plans to meet next month with various city leaders, including the city attorney, to talk about legally rescinding the contracts.

If the city does rescind its contract with Otterness, the president of the Arts Commission said that doing so would be unprecedented. He said considering the character of an artist has never been a part of the contracting process.

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