La Jolla Sidesteps Public Art Hurdles By Going Private
Malcolm Bohm is walking his two Jack Russell terriers, Snuffles and Peebles. The La Jolla resident often walks by a neon-colored mural, on the back of the old Hotel Parisi at the corner of Prospect and Herschel streets in downtown La Jolla. "It something interesting on the face of a rather boring building," said Bohm of the 108-foot mural, which faces a parking lot.
The mural is titled "53 Women," and it's by contemporary artist Ryan McGinness, who had a solo show at Quint Contemporary Art last year. It features 53 nude women, though the nudity isn’t lifelike. The figures are more abstract and geometrical.
The mural is one of 11 that have gone up in La Jolla over the last couple of years, all by well-known contemporary artists.
Bohm likes the McGinness piece. "It’s fun. As long as they change them around a few times. You know, give us a bit of variety."
In fact, none of the murals is permanent. They will all be rotated out eventually. Michael Krichman is on the committee that’s guiding the mural project through the La Jolla Community Foundation.
"I think there are very few examples of successful, permanent public art anywhere on the planet," said Krichman.
Making the murals temporary was a key decision by the committee of local arts leaders.
They’ve all served on public art committees in the past. Many of them resigned in frustration. Krichman said they wanted this process to be different.
"I don’t remember who it was that said let’s try to do something that we can actually get done," said Krichman. "All of us have been through the public-art wars in San Diego; and pretty consistently losing those wars. So we weren’t interested in making it an unpleasant process."
The group, which includes Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego director Hugh Davies and Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe, made a lot of calculated decisions. The most significant was to swap the public process for a private one.
Lynda Forsha is the curator of the mural project. She says they decided early on to put the murals on private property, no port tidelands, no city parks. "It was a process of walking around [La Jolla] looking for blank facades and it turns out there were many," said Forsha.
They found buildings they liked, contacted the property owners and asked if they’d be willing to have a temporary mural on their building. Many agreed, including Leon Kassell, who likes the mural on his building so much he doesn’t want it to go away. "I hope it stays here forever, as long as I own the building," said Kassell.
The mural on his office building is by Roy McMakin. It's composed of painted squares of various colors, many of which were chosen by community members while McMakin was installing the piece.
I asked Kassell how he would feel if they wanted to put a provocative mural on the side of his building. "So what?," he said. "As long as it’s decent, so what? It will be a topic of conversation."
San Diego has seen examples of provocative public art shot down by politicians. In fact, one could argue that democracy is not always good for public art.
A Nancy Rubins boat sculpture was supposed to grace Harbor Drive. It was voted down. The statue of a sailor kissing a nurse was voted in, despite opposition from a committee of experts.
With public agencies, "you’re dealing with public dollars, public funding," said Forsha. We have a different process."
"It’s really apples and oranges," Krichman explained. "We are working with private money."
The arguments you normally hear about public art go something like this: Why should my tax dollars pay for a sculpture I think is ugly? Or, Why pay for art when we need money to fix potholes? Suddenly those arguments disappear. Private money is a game changer. Of course, you still have to raise the money.
La Jolla is a wealthy community. The mural budgets range between $20,000 and $75,000. That’s relatively cheap in the world of public-art budgets. Forsha said they've been "lucky" in raising the necessary funds and estimates there are close to 40 in-kind and cash donors. "There are a lot of people in La Jolla who have contributed to the project," she said.
Not every community can afford the luxuries La Jolla can, murals or otherwise. Placing public art through the Port of San Diego, or the city, may be frustrating at times, but it's also offering less affluent communities a chance to experience art.
The La Jolla murals are made inexpensively, using billboard technology. The artist sends a digital file of the image. It’s printed on vinyl and secured to the wall on a metal frame. There are murals by John Baldessari and Julian Opie. The technology made it easier to get bigger-name artists who would normally require more time and money for a large-scale public art piece.
But for as much as you privatize the process, it’s still art in the public view. Which means some people will like a mural and some won’t.
Michael Cavanaugh is a bartender at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. We spoke on a recent weekday, as he walked by the McGinness mural. "I can see some people with their noses in the air, saying what are these doing here?" said Cavanaugh. "But for me personally, I think they’re great."
Even if a mural is unpopular, a new one will soon replace it, unlike the controversial "kiss statue," officially known as "Unconditional Surrender," on San Diego’s waterfront. Loved by some, despised by others, that bronze statue will be with us for decades to come.