BART fence obstructing public art piece stirring controversy in Berkeley, Oakland

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A wrought iron fence that recently went up around two steel sculptures near a Berkeley BART station has stirred a controversy about the importance of public art over the need to protect the public.

A BART spokesman said the fence was put up around the “HERE/THERE” sculpture with the city of Berkeley’s blessing after a sprawling and problematic homeless encampment was evicted from the spot that straddles the border between Oakland and Berkeley. 

The encampment was located dangerously close to train tracks and buildings and a fire would have posed a safety risk to passengers and potentially damaged millions of dollars of public infrastructure, said BART spokesman Jim Allison. 

Problem is, the fence partially obstructs the view of the HERE/THERE sculpture, a nod to Gertrude Stein's famous quote, "There is no there, there" about the novelist’s childhood home in Oakland. 

The "HERE" sculpture lets people know they’ve arrived in Berkeley, while the "THERE" piece alerts folks they’re arriving in Oakland.

The piece, commissioned by the city of Berkeley more than a decade ago, was created by Oakland artist Steve Gillman, who is now fighting mad about the removal of the homeless camp and the arrival of the new fence.

“This is just a knee-jerk reaction,’’ he said. “Our economy is so awful. People have no place to live.”

Gillman said he contacted a lawyer this week about upholding the California Arts Preservation Act, the 1979 state law that addresses artists’ rights. The act protects artists if their art, including any original painting, sculpture, or drawing that is "of recognized quality,’’ is damaged or destroyed.

Gillman believes art in public places can’t be modified or destroyed, which he claims the fence is doing.

“Maybe BART should donate their fence to Trump’s little project,’’ Gillman said, referring to the president’s plan for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. 

What’s more, Gillman said he set out to design a piece that could be enjoyed up close. In his original artist statement to the city of Berkeley, he wrote “I make things to be touched, to walk into, to sit on./ They are made for lingering./They tell us something about the place./They speak of people or events or silence./They energize, they quiet.”

Gillman has at least one ally in the city. At a city council meeting last week, Councilmember Ben Bartlett told Gillman that “we are taking affirmative measures to get the prison-style fence removed from that area.” 

Allison said that with more than 100 miles of train tracks in the Bay Area, various types of fencing is used in different areas to keep pedestrians, passengers and employees safe. And it seems this new fence is here to stay.

“We have no plans to remove the fence as long as it is serving its intended purpose,’’ Allison said in an email.