By Ed Pilolla
For more than 20 years, a towering ball of chain in the shape of a mushroom cloud has stood in front of the Santa Monica Civic Center, quietly making a statement about nuclear weapons.
Over the years kids climbed on it. People admired it. And many others walked past it with little notice. Threatened with its demise, the sculpture known as Chain Reaction has enlivened a passionate group of anti-nuclear activists trying to save what’s become a Santa Monica landmark.
“Of course I think it’s great and I wonder if I’m biased,” said Dave Conrad, son of the late Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad, who designed and built the piece. “But as time has passed, more people have joined on and people I really respect so I know it’s not just me.”
More than 50 people gathered on a warm August evening with storied Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic, spiritual author Marianne Williamson, Truthdig founder Robert Scheer and former Santa Monica mayors who testified to why the sculpture remains important.
Conrad couldn’t help but feel proud. He said he considers Chain Reaction his father’s greatest achievement. For one thing, it’s permanent. Or so he thought. Now rusted and weathered, the city says it needs $400,000 of repair work to make it safe, and unless the money is raised by February the peace monument is coming down.
His father donated the 26-foot tall sculpture to the city in 1991 in the wake of the anti-nuclear movements of the 1980s with a message: “This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph.”
“There are people who look at this sculpture and don’t know what it is,” Conrad said. “They don’t know that’s what a nuclear bomb blast looks like. Even though it’s still a threat, it’s no longer a part of our consciousness. And the city back then I think was also more anti-nuclear, more peace-oriented.”
About two dozen people are volunteering their time to fundraise led by long-time anti-nuclear activist Jerry Rubin, who is so dedicated to the cause he went on a 25-week liquid only fast last year to raise awareness. Rubin said he lost about 40 pounds.
“It’s not just a 26-foot high bowl of fruit,” he said. “It’s a message. It might make you think and discuss. That’s why it’s so powerful: It has such dialogue-opening potential.”
Art curator Robert Berman said the sculpture is an important part of Santa Monica culture worth preserving.
“I am personally very much drawn to this sculpture as being both a symbol and for its beauty and humor,” Berman said. “I can’t imagine driving down this street and not seeing it here. We would hate to see it go away.”
The sculpture, its message and even its location in front of the Civic Center were too important, they say, to let it go. While it’s long sat between the Los Angeles County Courthouse and the Civic Auditorium, the Rand Corporation moved in across the street about five years ago. Best known for its 1950s research into surviving and winning a nuclear war, the Rand Corporation moved to its new location after selling 11 acres of parkland to the city in 2000.
Spokesman Warren Robak said Rand has not expressed any interest in either keeping the sculpture or having it removed.
“We don’t have any position on the sculpture,” Robak said.
The city says it’s simply a matter of money. Jessica Cusick, Santa Monica’s cultural affairs manager, said the piece was never property built for outdoor display. Due to rust and corrosion it’s become weathered, and repairing the work would cost the estimated $400,000.
“From my perspective, it’s just pragmatic,” Cusick said. “How many half-a-million dollars is out there for the arts?”
Many in support of the sculpture believe they can repair it and may even be able to build a park around it for less money. The city has been addressing the issue of the sculpture for nearly two years and recently put up a chain link fence around the base to keep people from climbing it.
Although the Arts Commission voted earlier this year to drop the piece from the city’s collection, the Landmarks Commission voted in July 2012 to make it a local historical monument. Cusick said she did not think an anti-nuclear sentiment is becoming less relevant in Santa Monica, or society at large.
“I don’t think that issue has lost its steam in any way,” Cusick said. “If you look at the world, it’s an equally unsafe place. Certainly if you look at the group of activists who are really working very hard to save the piece, this issue has just as much resonance as it’s ever had.”
There’s been opposition and support for the sculpture since its inception. Both remain today.
“There are some people who never wanted it and never liked it and might say it’s a pile of junk,” Rubin said. “Everybody has a right to their opinion about art. I do myself.”
Rubin noted that Chain Reaction was installed for a price of $250,000 in 1991, which was quietly donated by the late Joan Kroc, philanthropist and wife of McDonalds founder Ray Kroc. It was narrowly approved by the City Council after the public voted 703 to 392 against it. Opponents of the piece were accused of stuffing the ballot box.
This time around, the fundraising total is the number to watch. “Somehow, we have to raise $400,000 by February,” Rubin said.