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San Francisco declines artist project after dog killing

November 16, 2011 7:28:59 PM PST
It's not surprising that in a city known for having more dogs than children, there is heated controversy over a plan to give two lucrative contracts to a man who killed a dog and called it art. The Arts Commission made a split decision Wednesday on whether to reverse those deals.

"Usually what were arguing about in San Francisco is the nature and quality of the artwork itself, in this case we're really talking about the nature of the artist himself," said P.J. Johnston, the chair of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Johnston says it's unprecedented. The art is bronze sculptures like those at the San Jose Zoo. The artist is 59-year-old Tom Otterness of New York who shot and killed a dog 34 years ago as a film project.

Arts commissioners were unaware of his past when they awarded Otterness two city contracts worth more than $1.4 million for work on the Central Subway Project and San Francisco General Hospital.

"To me animal abuse is tantamount to child abuse," said Bruce Wolfe.

Wolfe heads up DogPAC, a political group of dog lovers among critics at a hearing on Wednesday who have pushed to have the contracts revoked.

"This man is essentially the Michael Vick of the art world," said another speaker at the hearing.

But could the creator of these sculptures make amends? The director of the Animal Care and Control Department, Rebecca Katz, is taking a lot of heat after sending a letter to the Arts Commission saying she believes Otterness is interested in making amends, perhaps through fundraising or education projects.

"This being a city in particular that cares about animal welfare and cares about giving people second chances. I think he has an opportunity here, we have an opportunity here, to try and repair some of the harm," said Katz.

Otterness has expressed remorse, but now he will pay a price. The commissioners ended up making a split decision. The deal for the subway project has been cancelled, but the city has already paid the artist half of the hospital contract -- $365,000 so that project moves forward.

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