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Tacoma ‘Sun King’ sculpture comes out of storage

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By Rob Carson
Published:
The News Tribune
TACOMA — The sculpture “Sun King” has never had much respect in Tacoma.
In 1976, when the City Council approved spending $37,000 on the bronze artwork - which weighs 6 tons and stands taller than a semi-truck - the headline in the next day’s newspaper was “Monstrosity? Masterpiece? It’s now ours - forever!”
At the time, “Sun King”’s creator, Oregon sculptor Thomas Morandi, endured a barrage of insults about his work from Tacoma residents, who compared it to “dinosaur droppings” and worse.
Despite its prominent location in front of the Sheraton Hotel at South 13th Street and Broadway, the sculpture was mostly ignored for 30 years.
For many people, its best feature was the satisfying sound it made when hit with the side of a fist - a deep, resounding “bong,” often compared to a Chinese gong.
In 2006, “Sun King” suffered further ignominy. When the Sheraton was upgraded to become the posh Hotel Murano, the building’s new owners asked that “Sun King” be removed, saying it didn’t fit with the image they were trying to create.
The city obligingly hauled the statute off to storage, rusted and decaying from the inside out.
Now, after eight years in exile, “Sun King” is out in public again. Its rusty insides have been repaired, and Wednesday it was trucked to its new home in a tiny pocket park at South 15th and Dock streets, where city arts administrators hope it finally will get the respect they say it deserves.
“I think it’s going to be really stunning in its new location,” said City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. “It’s a magnificent work of art, and I’m really looking forward to having the right space around it to actually enjoy it.”
McBride and Dan Cederlund, the city engineer who orchestrated “Sun King”’s move across town, watched nervously Wednesday as contractors inched the sculpture onto its new concrete base at the park. “Sun King” made the move in three separate pieces. The largest one touched down shortly before 5 p.m.
Cederlund pronounced the sculpture’s new reinforced bottom “better than new.”
A dedication ceremony has been scheduled for June 25.
Regardless of the level of appreciation “Sun King” deserves as artwork, it deserves recognition for the place it holds in Tacoma’s history with public art. “Sun King” was the first major piece of public art commissioned by the city, and it happened decades before Dale Chihuly and before Tacoma began to see itself as an “arts town.”
As a public art pioneer, Morandi and his work bore the brunt of debates not only over the value of spending public money for artwork, but also the value of “abstract” art in general.
The $37,000 paid to Morandi for “Sun King” didn’t come from the local community. It was part of a federal urban renewal grant awarded to the city for the southern extension of the Broadway Plaza.
But it coincided with the debate over “percent-for-art” programs in Tacoma and elsewhere in Washington state.
Sun King’s most passionate defender, then and now, is Ellida A. Lathrop, now 82, and the city’s first arts administrator. Lathrop objected to Sun King being placed in storage in 2006, and she’s been campaigning ever since to return it to public view.
The sculpture and the artist were misunderstood and mistreated, Lathrop said.
“Morandi is a very gifted guy, and we beat him up,” she said. “Tacoma was not ready for this kind of art.”
Lathrop admits that even she was slow to warm to “Sun King.” When Morandi first brought a scale model of the sculpture to the arts commission jury in 1976, she was not impressed.
“Actually, I hated it,” Lathrop said, “but there were a lot of other people on the jury who were much smarter than I was.”
Lathrop eventually changed her mind. She now calls “Sun King” “the single most significant piece of public art in the city of Tacoma.”
“It opened the gateway to the idea that we needed an ordinance to provide money for the arts from public building projects,” she said. “It led to a public awareness that these things are important.”
Morandi was a young man when “Sun King” won the Tacoma commission. A 32-year old professor at Eastern Oregon State University, he’d had only one previous commission, for an abstract stainless steel piece called January Sprinter he did for the city of Pittsburgh.
He’s won 16 large outdoor public art commissions since then - some abstract, others figurative - including works at Reser Stadium at Oregon State University, the Capitol Mall in Salem and Portland State University.
Now 70 and retired from a 25-year career as an art professor at OSU, Morandi remembers his early Tacoma experience as a lonely and grim one.
“The sculpture was never a point of pride with the city of Tacoma,” he said, recalling there was no dedication ceremony or any other public recognition of “Sun King”’s debut.
“It was a cold winter week when we were there and installed it,” he said. “Not too many people paid much attention one way or the other.”
Even so, Morandi said he harbors no resentment.
“I wasn’t particularly surprised by the reaction,” Morandi said. “It was abstract sculpture and not as accessible to the general public as some would have liked. Unless you have some vocabulary - some knowledge to bring to a work like this - it’s going to be difficult to understand.”
Now, 37 years later, Morandi said he remains proud of “Sun King.”
“I still like the piece. I always did,” he said. “Maybe I made better statements at later points in my career, but it remains an honest observation of my environment when I was in my early 30s, and my environment was the Pacific Northwest.”
Morandi said he hasn’t visited the little pocket park where “Sun King” is being installed.
“I’ve only seen it on Google, but you can get a pretty good sense of it that way,” he said. “It’s a nice space, from what I can tell.” He plans to make the trip north to Tacoma next month for the rededication ceremony.
Morandi likes that the park is more open than the old spot by the Sheraton. People will be able to move around “Sun King” and explore it from different angles, he said.
As for whether the new location will lead to lots of new love for the sculpture, Morandi said he’s been around too long to think it’s possible to please everybody.
“There are always going to be people who are not happy with public art,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to them at any level, and in my experience, they tend to be very vocal.”

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