Venice Art Scene Heavyweights Square Off Over Proposed Mural Ordinance

By Roger Linnett

What had begun nearly a year ago as a way to replace the current ban on new murals in the city of L.A. and jump start the moribund municipal public art works process came to an abrupt halt in raucous debate before the L.A. Planning Commission and illuminated a schism in L.A.’s mural community, including prominent Venice art institutions. The moratorium was prompted in the first place by the pell-mell invasion by commercial interests into the realm of the muralist in a dispute over the use of private wall spaces.

The proposed ordinance “amends Article 4.4 (the Sign Code) of the Los Angeles Municipal Code . . . [to] carve out a distinct space for murals in the City’s sign regulations . . . Additionally, Public Art Installations are included in the proposed ordinance to ensure that all public art (whether a mural or other object) is treated similarly and does not conflict with the City’s regulations pertaining to commercial messages and signage.”

But, the L.A. Department of City Planning’s (DCP) Recommendation Report was amended to include several surreptious provisions prior to its presentation, creating a furor at the July 12 Planning Commission hearing.

Among those present at the hearing was Anna Siqueiros, a prominent L.A. artist and muralist, who was among many that were outraged that the ordinance she and many others had passionately worked on for six months had been unilaterally revised. (See her report of the hearing below)

Two of these new provisions in particular caused considerable uproar.

The most egregious to traditional muralists was the re-defining of Original Art Mural to include “digitally printed images” – computerized reproduction an existing mural on vinyl, or other such substrate, installed over the original.

The muralists were particularly exercised over this expanded definition of a mural, which they contend means ‘painting on a wall’, period.

Besides being an assault on the aesthetic fundamentals of murals, traditional muralists fear these new methods will significantly impact the amount of future work available to them, hence their ability to make a living as artists.

But, more importantly to the muralists, the process of creating a work of art in the community, interacting with the local peoples so they see the mural being created and begin to think of it as something organic and integral to the neighborhood is completely lost.

A digitally created mural comes from someone in front of a computer screen, virtually alone. When the finished printed work is installed the artist may only set foot on the location for a day, or just a few hours. There is no connection made with the environs the work exists in. And isn’t a major function of art to help people connect?

The issue has also been raised as to whether these “installations” will be afforded the protections granted under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which ensures copyrights for the artists, but is limited to visual works that fall within a narrowly defined category.

Furthermore, they contend that painting or ink-jet printing on these artificial materials is inferior to the original process and may substantially deteriorate before the end of the two year minimum lifespan requirement that was also added to the ordinance.

Additionally, because installations are affixed to buildings or walls as opposed to being painted directly on them, the L.A. Department of Building Safety will also have to sign off on any such project, which is not an issue with traditional murals.

Emily Winters, president of the Venice Arts Council, was among those who spoke against the other contentious provision that states “No new Original Art Mural shall be placed on a lot that has an exclusively residential structure with fewer than five dwelling units.”

This provision was apparently added by the DCP in answer to a Commissioner’s concerns about a proliferation of murals on single family homes and alley walls.

But an important part of the permit process states that “The Mural Ordinance Administrative Rules to be adopted by the Department of Cultural Affairs shall include a neighborhood involvement requirement for any applicant of a new Original Art Mural to provide notice of and to hold a community meeting on the mural proposal at which interested members of the public may review and comment upon the proposed mural. No new Original Art Mural shall be registered until the applicant certifies that he or she has completed the Neighborhood Involvement Requirement.”

This would seem to be a more bottom-up approach that would allow homeowners the freedom to pursue having a mural on their property than a ham-handed pronouncement from above by the city.

Supporters of the amended definition include Venice’s own SPARC, which is home to the UCLA/SPARC Digital Mural Lab that has developed a process for the digital reproduction and installation of murals.

In a July 19 guest editorial on KCET’s Departures website, SPARC co-founder Judy Baca wrote:

“Yes, fellow muralists, we do have a common enemy but it is not each other. It is corporations that claim the rights of individual personhood with resources so vast that people do not have to matter in a globalized world. The ban on murals goes into litigation because of the proliferation of billboards, super graphics and unchecked advertising. And there seems to be no end in sight for the use of every inch of space for advertising. This has created a visual glut in Los Angeles, and murals become almost invisible in such an environment, lost amongst the dominance of advertising image.”

SPARC is in the process of making a digital replica of “Calle de la Eternidad,” which was located in downtown L.A., on the sixty-something-year-old east facade of the 101-year-old Zobel Building on Broadway near Fourth St.

Under the current façade, on which the mural was painted in 1993, is the original façade, which has windows across the upper floors, and the owner wishes to restore the original façade as part of an over-all renovation.

The scan of the mural will be digitally restored by the original artist, Joanne Poethig, and then put on a canvas-like fabric made from recycled plastic and vinyl, and retouched again by hand, before being attached to the south side of the building once renovations are complete.

Thus, in this case, the replication process seems the only logical alternative to destroying this beautiful work. Obviously, there is a place for such a process in the L.A. art scene.

However, won’t the installation, being on the southern face of the building, be subjected to more intense degradation by sunlight, accelerating its fading and deterioration?

Recently, the last of a series of these “mural replicas” also referred to as “banners” of the works of six muralists was installed along the 101 Freeway between Alameda and Broadway as part of a seven-year study by Caltrans on a cost-effective way to maintain public art.

Caltrans main concerns are worker safety and cost of maintenance, and this method, which is purported to be more vandal- and graffiti-resistant, while not a “mural” in the strictest sense, is not without merit with regards to restoring art to public spaces and inspiring an aesthetic awareness in the community.

But people on both sides of the digital image divide have issues with the project on aesthetic and quality grounds.

Unable to decide on the ordinance’s final language, the Planning Commission has postponed the matter until Sept.13. But, the furor over what is a mural, and the possible economic and social implications for the artists and the citizens of L.A., will remain at the forefront of artistic politics in Venice and elsewhere in the city.

Categories: Art, Roger Linnett, Venice

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