By Shayna Gee
The Whales fountain sculpture by Robert Boardman Howard sat under tarps in a fenced lot for almost a decade and half at City College’s Ocean Campus before it was moved to a fine arts storage facility in Oakland in 2019. The 80-year-old, 13-foot high sculpture remains secure along with other works from the Civic Art Collection.
For half a century, the sculpture was admired at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences until the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) purchased it after the renovation of the Academy of Sciences in 2004. It needed a place to go and was eventually stored at Ocean Campus behind the now-demolished bungalows, where the whales bondaged by straps could be seen by passersby.
Born in New York City on September 20, 1896, Howard shortly after moved to the Bay Area where he grew up to become a prominent artist of many San Francisco paintings and sculptures. In a Sept. 16, 1964 oral history interview with Howard from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, he talked about his background, federal support for the arts, and early paintings including The Whales, which are commonly mistaken for dolphins.
“They are really killer whales,” Howard clarified.
Over 1,200 engagements were made on a March 8 post of Sunnyside History Project’s article “The Whales: Yet to be Saved,” in the Facebook group San Francisco Remembered.
Sunnyside recounted a brief history of The Whales, initially built for interior viewing at the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island in 1939, and their journey around the city. The article also highlighted Howard’s other San Francisco works of art including The Phoenix at Coit Tower and Power and Light at South of Market’s PG&E.
Facebook commenters reacted to the shared article. “I have many childhood memories of getting off of the 10-Monterey bus in front of the De Young Museum and making a beeline towards those whales to enter the Planetarium and the Steinhart Aquarium,” said Maria Iclea Kava in response to the article, sharing a black and white photo of The Whales.
“Right now it resides under wraps a few blocks from my house. I sincerely hope that it will be installed where it can once again be a source of beauty and inspiration for our city’s citizens,” commented Jane Solis Schafgans.
Many commenters expressed their wish to see the sculpture restored in the concourse of Golden Gate Park. Others suggested placement near the Maritime Museum or the Exploratorium, while dozens simply left hopeful notes that it finds a home, having been in storage for more than a decade.
With recent demolition and construction at the Ocean Campus, anthropology professor and City College’s Works of Art Committee member, Barbara Lass said, “The Arts Commission has now moved them to an off campus storage site pending installation at CCSF, but the Works of Art Committee does not know where or when that will happen.”
Lass noted that the Works of Art Committee is only an advisory committee and does not have decision making power on the sculpture owned by SFAC.
While many San Franciscans have fond memories like sharing lunch under the iconic sculpture or playing around during field trips, it is unlikely that The Whales will be restored within the Golden Gate Park area.
According to public records from SFAC, numerous City College staff, faculty, and administration and the Works of Art Committee have been in conversation with Senior Registrar, Allison Cummings at SFAC discussing options for a permanent location and restoration of the piece.
“The sculpture was initially damaged during the move to City College because the relocation protocols that the Arts Commission prescribed were not followed by the Academy of Science’s general contractor,” Allison Cummings wrote in a 2018 email.
Since the pandemic, SFAC’s Civic Art Collection and conservation projects budget has been severely impacted. “Our budget was cut by 90% and our focus remains limited to emergency response and vandalism,” Cummings said.
Cummings estimated that the cost of restoration and installment would total $400,000. With the slashed budgets that support conversation projects such as The Whales, “We believe the $400,000 budget is still viable. Should the project move forward, we would evaluate it more closely,” Cummings said.
Where are The Whales now? The exact location remains unknown for security reasons, but Cummings said the sculpture is secure in the Oakland storage facility. While Cummings and Lass had discussed making the sculpture a permanent installation at City College’s Ocean Campus after restoration, “these plans are currently on hold along with other collection restoration projects until budgets are stabilized,” Cummings said.
Long time San Franciscans who miss The Whales will have to hold on a little longer before the sculpture emerges for public enjoyment again.