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To save a sculpture, parks department gives Chicano artist an ultimatum

Tuesday, August 6, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

For decades, Big Rock – or Chicano Rock, as it is now called – has stood on the southeast corner of Waterloo Park. Created by artist David Santos and members of LUCHA (League of United Chicano Artists) in 1989, the hand-carved limestone sculpture is an ongoing project that has now come to the attention of the city for being in violation of the Capitol View Corridor regulations.

In order to keep the sculpture in its current location, the Parks and Recreation Department says it needs to be reduced in height.

“For many, many years, no one paid much attention to it at all,” Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Anthony Segura told the Austin Monitor. It was not until the city began a phased plan to revitalize the 11-acre green space that city staff noticed the height of the sculpture exceeded what is permitted by 2 feet, 4.7 inches.

That violation compounded the urgency of a years-long debate between the city of Austin and David Santos over who actually owns Chicano Rock.

“The sculpture itself has never really been accepted into the arts assets field (of the city),” Segura told the Monitor.

A memo released by the parks department says that Santos “repeatedly declined to complete the requirements of the (Art in Public Places) program that are necessary to effectuate a donation.” As a result, the city maintains that it has never officially accepted the donation of the sculpture.

According to city documents from 1990 and the present day, the sculpture is classified as being on loan. That designation means that the piece is still privately owned by the artist and is limited to remaining on city property without renewal for five years.

However, Santos told the Monitor that the art piece has been city property for decades.

“They somehow think we skipped a step or something,” he said.

The ownership of the sculpture came back into question three years ago, when Santos began adding to the carved limestone block to add further height to a structure that was already in violation of height limitations. Segura explained that because the city does not own the art, it cannot pay Santos for any additions or updates to the work. Additionally, there are questions of liability if someone were to get injured working on the sculpture on city property.

In an attempt to resolve the liability issue, the city’s Law Department sent a letter to Santos last December outlining the need for him to obtain a permit and liability insurance for the sculpture. In May, the artist submitted insurance that did not meet all city requirements, and therefore he was asked to cease and desist making modifications to Chicano Rock.

This long-standing dispute will shortly reach some sort of resolution come Aug. 14. In a memo, the Parks and Recreation Department outlined three possibilities for Santos to preserve his sculpture. One includes moving the sculpture to another Parks and Recreation property; a second option allows Santos to retain private ownership and Parks and Recreation will pay for the relocation of Chicano Rock; and a third option includes Santos lowering the sculpture by the required 2 feet, 5 inches and filling out the appropriate paperwork to officially donate the piece to the park.

The required height reduction to bring Chicano Rock into compliance with the Capitol View Corridor regulations is exactly the height of the base of the sculpture.

Segura told the Monitor that there is now a fourth option on the table, proposed by Santos himself. This alternative includes moving the art piece 50 feet away to the median in the middle of 12th Street, which would bring the sculpture – in its current state – into compliance with Capitol Corridor height restrictions.

Santos has not yet made his decision. If negotiations remain at an impasse, the city “will proceed with removing Chicano Rock without his consent” and move the piece into storage until Sept. 30, 2020.

Santos told the Monitor that because he was not the sole creator of the sculpture, he finds himself unable to speak on behalf of all of the artists who contributed to its creation. He said in order to save the park from development, and preserve the space along with the placement of the sculpture, “we want that area declared a cultural landscape.”

To remove as much burden from the process as possible, the Parks and Recreation Department will be shouldering the expense for all relocation costs as well any potential construction costs for Santos.

“The city is trying to work above and beyond in terms of finding an amicable solution for him,” said Segura, who explained that “we do definitely recognize the artistic value” of the piece.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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