Internationally recognized Laguna Beach artist Marlo Bartels creates whimsical-but-functional sculptures that grace parks, museums and even the inside of people's homes. The city of Burbank commissioned him to make "Early Burbank," a 10x10 foot tile mural. Two undulating mosaic benches he made line the entrance of the Spanish Walk development in Palm Desert. He also has pieces in Cancer Survivor Parks in San Diego, Rancho Mirage and Phoenix, Arizona. Many Laguna Art Museum visitors have sat on his bench in front of the structure or slurped from his drinking fountain on the lower level. And Bartels' even made a shower stall into an elaborate art piece in at least one Emerald Bay home.
"Marlo is clearly one of the most important contemporary public sculpture artists to be working on the West Coast," says Laguna Art Museum director Bolton Colburn.
It was with much fanfare that a Bartels-created, crazy-colorful fountain was unveiled in the Irvine Regional Hospital lobby upon the facility's 1990 opening. However, that work of art now stands in the way of demolition, and the hospital's new operator has essentially told the artist to move it or lose it.
In a bid to save the fountain/sculpture, Bartels has appealed to Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, Orange County's art community and, most importantly, the board of directors of Newport Beach-based Hoag Hospital, which now leases the complex. As this was being posted, the artist says he has yet to receive any response.
"Marlo has a legacy here and this piece must be preserved," says his wife, Cathy Bartels. "Removing it would destroy his work."
Colburn drafted a letter dated May 7 supporting that position. The museum director called the fountain an example of Bartels' successful merging of "the functional with the esoteric, his art," and said the installation "seductively invites contemplation and reflection."
"In re-designing the area at Hoag Hospital that Marlo's site specific work is located in, I would strongly encourage re-incorporating Marlo's work into the new design," Colburn writes. "Please do not confuse Marlo's installation at Hoag with design, it is not, it's clearly an important piece of art that is very successful at making the environment at Hoag Hospital more interesting, inviting and human."
But instead of an art lesson, what's needed here is a history lesson, according to Debra Legan, Hoag's vice president of Marketing and Corporate Communications. When Hoag signed a lease on Feb. 20 for the hospital on Sand Canyon Avenue, the facility had been abandoned. Modernizing a medical center that had been built in 1990 required an extensive remodel, Legan said, especially since Hoag is opening a new emergency room and acute care facility there in 2010.
Besides standing in the way of the planned redesign, the fountain simply does not work, she added. Irvine Regional Hospital operators had disabled it after water overspill landed on the looby floor, creating a slip hazard. "At a hospital, that is especially not appropriate," Legan said. "The previous owner had the sense to turn it off."
Scott Nugent, an architect with Hoag's Real Estate, Facilities, Construction and Operations division, sent Bartels a letter informing him of the hospital's decision to remove the piece and giving him 90 days to come take it. Nugent also offered Hoag's help with removal and relocation. But if the artist did not act by the deadline, he was informed the hospital would remove it.
Hospital "preservationists," of course, swing sledgehammers.
Asked if the piece could simply be relocated somewhere within the newly remodeled hospital, Legan answered, "No, there is no appropriate way for us to do that." However, the Hoag spokeswoman stuck with the original offer made to Bartels. "We are absolutely more than happy to help him. If he wants to have people come in and look at it, whatever it takes to relocate it, that is fine."
"Removing it would destroy it," says Bartels, who has faced similar situations before. He created a mural in a Columbus, Ohio, bank that was later sold. The entrie mural wall was gingerly moved to a city park. The works of other artists have been threatened as well. Efforts are under way to save Millard Sheets' murals that were made for Home Saving Bank of America branches in the 1930s.
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Asked about his functional art apparently not functioning, Bartels said the fountain aspect of the piece was approved during the proposal process, and there was a written agreement that "the Sculpture shall be maintained so that its natural beauty is preserved, its artistic purpose fulfilled, and its water flow features maintained." The artist also claims to have provided specific cleaning procedures and instructions for the proper maintenance of the fountain as well as a guarantee that the sculpture would be free of defects in workmanship, materials, and articles for a period of one year from the date of installation. He has no idea if Irvine Regional Hospital lived up to the maintenance agreement and says no one ever alleged the fountain had a defect.
Legan estimated it's been a couple weeks since the 90-day period kicked in and, as of Thursday morning, Nugent told her he had not heard from Bartels. That seems to be going around. Since each side's respective letters went out, the Bartels claim they have not heard from the architect, Kang or the Hoag board.
The artist maintains the best option would be to follow Colburn's advice and have the architect redesign the remodel to incorporate the fountain/sculpture.
"Without public education about this, lots of art work would disappear, which, as a culture, do we really want this to happen?" Cathy Bartels asked. "And Orange County, being so young, has to be educated to this. Like Bolton also said, this sculpture is not decoration but an important art piece."