Someplace Special: New County Operations Center is a showplace for public art

Jay Johnson’s Signature Wall (Building 5530, 3rd floor). Maurice Hewitt
Jay Johnson’s Signature Wall (Building 5530, 3rd floor). Maurice Hewitt

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Public art is a grand collaboration between developers, politicians, arts administrators, selection committees and artists, and sometimes it really works.

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Jay Johnson’s Signature Wall (Building 5530, 3rd floor). Maurice Hewitt

The $358 million County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa is a bold step forward, resuscitating an old “artwork allowance” policy that allows for .05 percent of the estimated building costs of certain county projects to be spent on original works of art.

La Jolla-based art consultant Gail Goldman was selected by the county to put together a comprehensive art plan for the new complex. “The policy had been dormant for over 20 years,” she said, “but thanks to (County Board of Supervisors Chairman) Ron Roberts, we got the county to reactivate the program.”

The result is said to be the largest public art project in San Diego County’s history, with 22 works by 14 artists, including several whose names are well known in La Jolla. Eleven of the artists are local, among them La Jollan Joyce Cutler Shaw, whose “Orbital Loops” was the first suspended sculpture installed, in Building 5500.

Only one of the art works — a tall steel sculpture made up of myriad tiny figures by London-based Zadok Ben-David — is immediately apparent as you stroll onto the 38-acre campus. The rest are hidden surprises, inside the mostly ordinary-looking buildings. As you enter each lobby, look up: there are impressive pieces hanging high overhead.

But some of the most clever art works are at eye- level: wall-mounted assemblages of objects salvaged from demolished county buildings by artist Jay Johnson, who teaches sculpture at UCSD and was originally short-listed as a potential sculptor. Instead, he decided to accept the longer-term, broader-ranging position of Artifacts Display Project Director.

For over two years now, it’s been a full-time job for Johnson. Working with historian David Richardson, he collected a mass of documents, photos, rubber stamps, antique tools and other ephemera and fashioned them into imaginative pieces that often relate to departments nearby.

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Anne Mudge’s 7-piece ‘Littoral Drift’ beautifies the Permit Center, the busiest building in the complex. (Building 5510, Lobby). Maurice Hewitt

Instead of merely creating the first inventory of county artifacts, he’s turned them into art. As he says: “They’re getting an archive and wall art pieces, too!”

He has a gift for seeing possibilities, like finding a document signed by Abraham Lincoln, and enlarging the signature enough to give it real presence. If not for Johnson, there would just be an arrow pointing to the Sheriff’s Medical Detention Offices. Instead, there’s a wall of antique manuscripts, writing implements, and king-sized signatures, including Junipero Serra and Calvin Coolidge. Many of the two-foot-wide names on display came from inch-wide originals.

“We didn’t have much interesting-looking stuff, but we had a lot of documents,” Johnson said. “So I decided to arrange them in interesting ways.” Fortunately, he’s a master of assemblage who won last year’s San Diego Art Prize for his work.

“There was a great opportunity for art to distinguish this place, and that’s what’s happening,” said Goldman. “The art is permanent, it’s here to make a difference, and it already has: people are coming to the complex, not just on business, but to see the art. We hope this will be the start of a huge momentum, and that other building projects will follow our lead.”

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