The San Pedro Creek Culture Park has moved on from Plethora, the Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada public sculpture once meant as its centerpiece, but ultimately a financial boondoggle for Bexar County.
A new request for qualifications has been issued by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) despite no public announcement of the cancellation of Plethora by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, the project’s sponsor.
A request for qualifications issued by SARA is the initial stage for proposals, seeking a new project to take the place of Plethora by Winter 2019. The new work would occupy the same site on the Plaza de Fundacion, where the creek intersects Santa Rosa Street.
Once heralded by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff as “the defining artwork for downtown” due to its connection of the river to the city’s founding culture, Plethora was intended as the public face of the project, and the downtown gateway to an improved San Pedro Creek. However, indefinite delays due to cost overruns and design changes
caused the Culture Park to open May 5 without the sculpture in place.
Plethora originally had a $735,000 budget, but projected costs ballooned to more than $1.5 million in part because of an engineering decision to change construction materials from aluminum to stainless steel. Structural integrity was cited as the primary issue in switching to the stronger — and more expensive — material, though the size of the structure was reduced 60 to 45 feet in height in an effort to mitigate costs.
Rodríguez-Gerada expressed excitement at the “cutting edge” technology required for realization of the sculpture when the project was first announced.
Costs threatened to spiral early on as fabrication of the stainless steel version of the sculpture alone would have cost more than $1 million, said Hank Perez, an estimator for RiverCity Industries, which was approached for a quote by the artist and design team early in the process. Perez’s estimate did not include installation costs.
Such results are not unusual, he said.
“Architects and artists dream up projects, and they look great, but when you start getting into them, you sometimes figure out they’re a little more expensive than what they thought it might be,” Perez said.
T.J. Mayes, Wolff’s chief of staff, noted in a statement that the judge was “disappointed by the inaccurate estimates provided by the artists and engineers.”
Plethora was “definitely an ambitious project,” said Carrie Brown, SARA’s public art curator who was hired in April 2017 after Plethora had already been selected. “Of course with an ambitious project, there’s a certain amount of risk.”
Of the original overall budget, $257,250 had already been spent, though $133,750 of that amount went to the construction of the concrete base for the 10-ton sculpture, which presumably can be used for the new work selected.
The new project budget of $425,000 aligns with the amount of $477,750 left from the original budget. The reduced amount necessitated a new call for proposals, Brown said, but she still expects that the project will function as a gateway for the culture park.
“This time around, we will definitely do our due diligence in terms of reference checking and making sure we’re selecting finalists that have the type of qualifications needed,” Brown said. “Not that it wasn’t done [previously].”
“We want to make sure we’re extra careful this time around, what our expectations are for the park, and the county’s expectations for the project, that we’re all on the same page, and get the right artist on board,” she said.
Rodríguez-Gerada, who is based in Barcelona, Spain, did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
Similar to the Department of Arts and Culture, SARA maintains a list of artists pre-qualified for public art projects, the majority of whom are based in San Antonio or Texas. Those artists are all eligible to apply, but the new request for qualifications is an open call to any international artist with appropriate credentials.
Given the delay for what has been designated a “Tricentennial Artwork,” the timeline for new proposals is already moving quickly, with responses to the request for qualifications due Aug. 30. An information session for artists and a site visit is scheduled for Thursday. Brown assured that a timeline of four to eight weeks from issuance of the request to the response deadline is typical.
Finalists will be selected the week of Sept. 17, and their proposals will be due Oct. 24. The artist is scheduled to be selected the week of Oct. 29 and approved by the Bexar County Commissioners Court in November, with an intended completion date for installation in Winter 2019, a full year after the Tricentennial year.
Despite the fact the project won’t debut during the Tricentennial year, Brown said the new work would still be “a sculpture celebrating the Tricentennial.”
“It will commemorate that celebration, and that milestone that we’ve reached,” she said. “We can celebrate that for as long as we want to, I suppose.”