Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How to install public art in the City

On Saturday, the Street Art Nerd linked to the Social and Public Art Resource Center's article on graffiti murals.
In the bottom of the linked article, the "Posh One" relates an experience in the "city of" North Hollywood with a mural that he claims was "censored" by it being removed when neighbors complained. [Read the full articles to get the back story.] Now, as a City Nerd, I'm not here to support censorship, but I did want to clarify what really happened...

First, his reference to the "City of North Hollywood" in the article may have been his first challenge in getting the art to remain- remember North Hollywood is a community of Los Angeles, not its own City. So, if seeking approval from the City of North Hollywood, none would be attainable.

So, since the mural was in LA, there were some simple processes to go through to have it be "approved." First, any art installation visible from the public right-of-way (sidewalk, street, etc.) must have the approval of the Cultural Affairs Commission. They meet regularly to approve public art and other visible arts creations. So far this year, they have spent most of the their time on non "public art" items, as is evident by their most recent agenda. So, the applicant/artist would submit the proposal for approval of the commission in advance to be considered at their next meeting. They would review it and hear any public concerns and confirm the commitment of the property owner that the installation would be supported & maintained. Then, the project would be approved. It's a fairly simple process. Often, there will be a withdrawal of the project (if the commission doesn't see it as fit for installation) in order rework the proposal to address any community or commission concerns.

So, if there's a mural proposal, don't just do it - get the proper permission. I know - this sounds counter intuitive to art, but that brings up the debate of whether the "non-processed art" is art or not. If an artist wants to create something without permission and take the chance that it might be cited for removal, they could create the work on panels to install and remove without damaging the work. This is not the way the "process" works, but it's a way to have non-regulated installations that won't require completely painting out the work if it creates a stir.

What's interesting about this is it raises a similar issue of what the Studio City Neighborhood Council took up a few months ago with the "non-permitted" installation of art by Karl Johnson on Rhodes Avenue (both on the parkway & on his private property). There was an insurance issue with the Board of Public Works, but no mention of the Cultural Affairs Commission, which would be required if the work was to remain. (It is still there without any notable victory. The battle seems to have avoided the Cultural Affairs component of the "art" issue.)

Photo from Flickr member !HabitForming (who disclaims he didn't take the pictures), who also posts a very relevant article.


Sahra Bogado said...

I've skimmed through the requirements for approval of a mural by the Cultural Affairs Commission, and I can't help but be reminded about the notice posted to Arthur Dent, the protagonist in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", about the eminent demolition of his home:

"But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display ..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a torch."

"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard."

It seems to me that the whole idea of a "Cultural Affairs Commission" is to stymie creative expression, and prevent cultural affairs.

This reminds me of the tenuous legal situation the lonchera trucks find themselves in. They are, by default, always breaking some law or another. It is the prerogative of the police or some local 311 junkie to shut them down.

If it is so easy to get permission to paint a mural - why don't more artists and people go through the official process? The reality is, this process is designed to give the powers that be the authority to, by default, destroy any expression that they deem unfit and to ignore the legal status of those they like. It is just as arbitrary and capricious a situation as having no Cultural Affairs Commission at all.

C... said...

This is very interesting but it makes sense otherwise it can just be construed as graffitti.

But Ubrayj02 - is more on target. It's who you know and what shade you happen to be or well lined your pockets are. Yup.

Mitch Glaser said...

Ubray, the passage from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is hilarious, largely because it rings true. The rules, regulations, and procedures of a bureaucracy can be stranger than fiction.

Our system of government is meant to balance individual rights against the rights of the larger community. It's a delicate balancing act, especially when it comes to the use of property and buildings. The political battles over zoning attest to the inherent conflicts.

I understand why the City deems it necessary to approve murals. While artists have a right to express themselves and property owners have a right to allow murals on their buildings, we can't let people create art that is offensive to the larger community or that detracts from neighborhood aesthetics. There has to be some kind of vehicle for regulation.

If the bureaucratic process of the Cultural Arts Commission is inefficient or cumbersome, it can be changed. People often forget that the government is an entity of the people. If artists organize and lobby their elected officials, they can effect positive change.

Anonymous said...

Although I am an urban planer cocnerned witht he abolition of blight, graffiti is a manifestation of dysfunctional homes and does have a place in society. The first picture is of an auto shop in Boyle Heights, the surrounding barrio is covered in gang graffiti and beige/grey graffiti buff. That auto shop allowed several artists to make it a lot more visually pleasing, and was a local cultural landmark as a original venue for legal public art by graffiti artists, inspiring other artist to get permission to create masterpieces rather than focusing on pure vandalsm. Many of those artist went professional and developed a successful, and more importantly legal, career, including myself who is an urban planner and started/runs a nonprofit organization that creates murals and performs art lessons in inner city LA.

An unhappy loser who has too much time on his hands named Armando Herman railroaded a city program to invest more in public murals into a mural eradication rpogram that dictated what is graffiti and what is not from undisclosed and inobjective standards. Becuase of this the gateway between vandalism/dysfunctional behavior and positive social input is ruined.

Anonymous said...

I believe my last coment was a bit confusing, as I wrote it in a rush. To reiterate: Vandalism is a nuisance as well as detrimental to a quality urban environment, but to ignore it or focus solely on eradication/enforcement is a bit short sighted. There needs to be a carrot to go along with the stick, and I find it oddly convenient that as long as the bulk of graffiti is created by inner city kids there is absolutely no carrot to help some of them push beyond vandalism and into genuine art.

Back in the day, the civic neglect that was imposed by our politicians was an insurance that permission graffiti murals as well as paintable yards(psuedo legal splace to paint) provided a springboard for poor talented kids to get an art career/self betterment going. With this further restriction on beautifying generally already ugly areas(which is usually where graffiti artists will go to paint,they logically go to where there is more blight and a need for creative beautification) this springboard is gone, and the jump from vandal to artist is now again generally only available to rich white kids whose parents can afford to send them to art school.

As I noted before, Boyle heights resident Armando Herman has decided to work out personal emotional issues by picking on an easy target" graffiti artists trying to do art legally with permission walls. The man has noted he see no difference in graffiti(gang or piece mural) which is basically a declaration of naivete/hostility towards a valid art form, yet thinks that that same ignorance and naivete on the subject should be allowed to dictate what is art and what isnt. To put it in simple psychological terms, someone got picked on a bit too much as a kid and does not know how to work it out internally, and is now attempting to mess with the positivite actions of others to assuage his voids. He has outright lied and bullied folks from cultural affairs and was only silenced when he was confronted by succesfull ex-graffiti artists turned professionals at a cultural affairs board meeting.

This pathetic celebration of unhappiness is why cultural affairs is getting strict on murals, I worked in LA before this crap and restrictions were much more lax. Like I said, the program was originally meant to prolificate more murals in blighted areas, but has been railroaded into buffing community mural productions done by locals in neighborhoods that are otherwise ignored.

I agree with a code of decency and upholding some sort of level of artistic merit to public art pieces, but it is absurd to be buffing free art works that are considered beautiful by many in communities where the city cant pave sidewalks or plant one damn tree. As a participant of cultural affairs meetings I can tell you the process is WAY too rigorous and resource consuming for a carniceria owner and local starving artist from east LA or pacoima to pursue, so many more walls will remain gang billboards or puzzle-like collages of gray and beige antigraffiti buffcoat. Although I respect and appreciate the input given by the board commisioners, it is very obvious that they are more than willing to totally change a mural composition with little actual reasoning. I was once told if I can use a sandblaster and re-applicable graffiti wax coat which would cost thousands of dollars to do for a small free community mural in Boyle Heights with a budget of $300, to give an example of absurdity. It is also apparent that they will easilly deny anything close to conctorversial, controversial apparently includes murals about indigenous identity/social struggle-resistance/ and proven history in communities where the subject matter is 100% relevant to the community they will be placed in. The inobjectivity in imposing one's guilt into the decision of whether or not to allow a mural that educates locals on an issue relevant to themselves and their contemporary predicament totally invalidated the process in my opinion, and I have never had one of my mural projects denied(but know others how have).

All day long the news reports on inner city youth violence, random teenage realted shootings, and crimes committed by yound idle youth. Go to any inner city area and see the thousands of kids mulling on corners doing nothing afterschool and you will see something needs to address this lack of resources and afterschool programs. When ostracised dysfunctional kids from these communities finally get together and create a positive organic art work for pennies at no public expense, one which many times has propelled some of these otherwise potential prison inmates into a legal art career, and we put a ton of restrictions up and paint over the unregistered pieces. That is bullshit. Clean up the fucken streets in LA's barrios before you pay someone to paint over public art works, put in some street benches and afterschool programs before you extinguish one of the few positive outlets embraced and accepted by our inner city kids.

I now see almost every freeway mural bombed beyond recognition, and the once sacred graffiti culture code of not defacing art(as well as houses and churches). This did not occur on the level it does today until the late 1990s, around the time the city began focusing a lot of money on graffiti abatement(purely reactionary, no proativity whatsoever) and painting over everything including unecessary river walls and train right-of-ways. Since there is no place to paint, these little assholes have let loose on anything they will ensure a longer running time for their vandalism, specifically on murals which take a long time and cost a lot of money to fix(also initially part of the cultural affairs mural program railroaded into censorship).

We do not need any more cowboy strategies when dealing with ostracized youth. We need to provide a carrot as well as the stick, positive reinforcement is not only reserved for middle class kids from the west valley.