By Suzanne Thompson, Co-Founder, Venice Arts Council and Chair, Endangered Art Fund
In 2011 former Councilmember Rosendahl, CD 11, had proposed taking murals out of the signage ordinance and create a mural ordinance. He initially suggested a mural district for CD 11 as a pilot project. Those of us on the Venice Arts Council thought it would be a great idea, as Venice has several historic murals, the Venice Graffiti Walls, Venice Beach Poet’s Monument and many muralists wanting to paint more murals. But we all were soon convinced by Judy Baca and SPARC to include all of Los Angeles in the proposed new mural ordinance.
On Wednesday, August 28, I attended what I had hoped would be the last hearing to approve a new mural ordinance for the City of Los Angeles, making LA, once again, the mural capital of the world. The vote had originally been scheduled for Tuesday August 20, and then rescheduled for Friday August 23 because of the IBEW contract with DWP debate at City Council. Again, another email was issued from City Hall saying the date was changed, yet again, to Wednesday, August 28 for the final vote on the new mural ordinance.
One of the highlights on this long awaited day when LA City Council would vote to approve a new mural ordinance, besides observing the newly elected officials in action, was connecting with the people in Council Chambers. Yes, we had Juan Alcala, the guy with the wild headgear, testify during the hearing when those opposed to the new mural ordinance could speak. He added some humor to the occasion with, “Oh, I’m just kidding. I support the ordinance,” which drew some laughs in the council chambers. Former staffer in charge of murals with the Department of Cultural Affairs, Pat Gomez was excited to give her first public testimony supporting the ordinance. I sat next to Maura McLaughlin with “Off the Wall Graffiti” who works with kids who show a talent in graffiti art and a willingness to learn about art, a chance to create, compete and win art supplies, be mentored and have access to scholarship opportunities. A member of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, Kwazi Nkrumah, was at City Hall for the “Stop the War on Youth of Color, Wage War on Poverty”, Justice for Trayvon Martin, Jail Zimmerman and Overturn ‘Stand your Ground’ laws” rally to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, and stopped in to check things out. Felipe Sanchez from SPARC distributed colorful yellow and red stickers “#LA Murals NOW” to show support for passage of a mural ordinance. Mr. Rothman, a city official in the Planning Department, wanted a sticker. Some council members proudly wore them.
Council President Herb Wesson from CD 10 took other agenda items before ours which again, kept us waiting. He announced that we would only be allowed 15 minutes for comments. Isabel Rojas Williams, Executive Director of The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, was instructed by Councilman Huizar’s planning deputy, Tanner Blackman, who deserved to be acknowledged for his tireless and passionate efforts, to create a list of names, allowing one minute each.
There were 10 organizations: SPARC, The Mural Conservancy, the Venice Arts Council, Self Help Graphics, UPPA, Mobil Mural Lab, LA Freewalls, Plaza de la Raza, Mictlan Murals, the Siqueiros Foundation of the Arts and the Conservancy of Urban Art who previously issued a joint statement to City Council in support of version “A”, which allows murals on single family homes and an “opt out” for those council districts that want a “mural free zone”. Why penalize districts that want murals? The letter said, “The mural community has worked hard to help shape a mural policy that we all believe to be fair and just. When you have the majority of us who have made murals a key aspect of our artistic life, our voice should not be ignored”.
Muralists from across LA were there to show support for the new mural ordinance. Unfortunately, only a few muralist and arts organizations such as Kent Twitchell, Anna Siqueiros, David Botallo, Willie Heron, Daniel Lahoda, Noni Olabisi, Isabel Rojas Williams and Carlos Rogel were allowed time to comment. Other muralists and arts advocates had taken time off from work, childcare, or from painting murals to attend the hearing. Venice muralists Emily Winters and Francisco Letelier, as well as me, were bumped from the list of selected speakers. Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks was not given time to express the VNC support for the new mural ordinance either. President Lucks also commented that Venice had submitted a Community Impact Statement but it was not included in the council file. Folks from the Aztlan Gang Intervention program did not have the opportunity to share how murals help stop the cycle of violence in their communities.
Apparently, the list of “painfully” pre-selected speakers submitted by Rojas-Willams to Huizar’s deputy Blackman disappeared or was ignored by Councilman Tom LaBonge, who was chairing the meeting at the time.
In the future, I hope our council president and members show more respect towards the artists and arts community by: 1) not postponing the vote, 2) not limiting public speaking time so that supporters can express their options and enlighten elected officials, and 3) stick to the agenda and not keep us waiting or pushing us back on the agenda.
Although he had two versions, A and B referred from PLUM to Council, Councilmember Huizar, chair of PLUM, introduced the motion in support of Version B. He noted that only 2-3% of murals on private property are located on R-1 properties. Councilmember Bernard Parks CD 8 was concerned about assault weapons being included on murals along Crenshaw Boulevard. Earlier in the day, Councilmember for CD 9 Curren Price gave a commendation to his constituents in memory of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. He is well known as a supporter of the arts and expressed his support for murals on R-1 properties, Version A.
Councilmember Bonin CD 11 gave a shout out to muralist Judy Baca (who along with SPARC Executive Director Debra T. Padilla viewed the hearing online from Mexico), Emily Winters and Francisco Letelier. “People need to know that not all great muralists live in East LA,” said Councilmember Bonin during a follow up conversation. Unfortunately, the councilman stood with his constituents in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Mar Vista and would not support version A, murals on single family homes. Although he had previously expressed that he would love to have a mural on his house in Mar Vista, he could not be convinced to support “opting out” instead of “opting in”.
Lifting the 2002 mural moratorium that denied artists the right to create freely and legally, murals on private property appear to be moving forward as version B was approved, 13 yes, 2 no votes, with amendments referred back to a joint committee of Arts, Parks and Neighborhoods and PLUM (Planning and Land Use Management Committee). Councilmembers Paul Koretz CD 5 and Bob Blumenfield CD 3 were the only no votes. Koretz said “I have not heard from anyone who lives in my district that they want murals”. One would think the other “no” voter Blumenfield, whose wife Kafi serves as President and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation, one of the nation’s most admired social change foundations, would be more supportive of making LA the mural capital of the world once again. He was more concerned for neighborhood control and asked for a 2/3rds sign off from those in the view shed of the mural. Councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell CD 13 and Nury Martinez CD 6, (shamefully, the only woman on council), expressed support for the arts and the passage of Version B. Councilmember Joe Buscaino CD 15 chief of staff Jacob Haik told me that Joe wanted to see the ordinance return to committee for further vetting. Councilmembers Felipe Fuentes CD 7 and Paul Krekorian CD 2 (SPARC’s Great Wall, is located in his district), were relatively silent on the matter.
The big surprise of the day was from Councilmember Mitchell Englander, CD 12 who serves on PLUM with Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo and chaired by Huizar. After attending many PLUM hearings on this issue and listening to Englander spew fear of the “other” and wanting to keep his communities mural free zones, he appeared to have done a 180. He sent out letters to 95 neighborhood councils asking them to way-in on the proposed ordinance. He was more concerned about protecting those who don’t want murals. He said “this is more difficult than it should be. We have a museum in the San Fernando Valley which will include a new mural on the history of Northridge”. Perhaps those tours of murals in other districts helped. Or perhaps he listened to himself and realized that his comments were racist and he needed to clean up his act. David Diaz, Director Urban Studies Program CSU Los Angeles, wrote a great letter to City Council on this matter.
There was a lot of confusion about the vote. Amendments were offered but not available to the public. We were told that since the vote was not unanimous, a second hearing would have to take place. I still was not clear what exactly happened. I listened to a press interview with Councilmember Huizar following the vote to confirm what I thought took place. Thankfully, I received clarification from Councilmember Bonin.
Essentially, the council approved Version B with instructions for staff to move quickly (within 30 days) to come up with a quicker “opt-in” process for R-1 properties, to report back on proposed requirements that murals be maintained, have protective anti-graffiti coating, include the neighborhood notification process and report on a proposed pilot project allowing Version A to be in effect in Councilmembers Cedillo’s and Huizar’s districts. Cedillo has been an avid supporter of murals on R-1 properties from the beginning. These reports and proposals will go to a joint meeting of PLUM and the Arts Parks and Neighborhoods Committee chaired by newly elected councilman Mitch O’Farrell. As of this writing, the date and time for this meeting have not been set.
We have waited long enough. Thank you former Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, former Councilmember and former PLUM Chair Ed Reyes, current PLUM Chair and Councilmember Jose Huizar, and Planning Deputy Tanner Blackman who served as the initial convener of the Mural Working Group, as well as my colleagues on the working group, Emily Winters, folks at SPARC Judy Baca, Debra T. Padilla, Felipe Sanchez, Carlos Rogel, Pilar Castillo, and folks with The Mural Conservancy of LA Isabel Rojas-Williams and others such as David Diaz, and the muralists, for their tireless and artful efforts to organize, unify, create and implement a new mural ordinance for the City of Los Angeles. Special thanks to the press, KCET, LA Times, The Argonaut, NBC Channel 4, The Huffington Post, KCRW and especially the Free Venice Beachhead for their continued coverage of the proposed LA City Mural Ordinance. I have been honored to work and struggle with all of you to this final victory. Now let’s attend the PLUM hearings and give our input on the rest of the amendments, continue to identify potential funding sources and create more great murals! Visit www.veniceartscouncil.org or on Facebook.
By Suzanne Thompson, Co-Founder, Venice Arts Council and Chair, Endangered Art Fund