September 2008 – The Situation for the Arts on Ocean Front Walk

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By Samuel Brantley

The writer has experienced the change in the area’s creativity from what was once free and vibrant to what is now oftentimes quite stifling under the influence of the city’s approach to the new regulations on the lottery system. At first, the experience had been enlightening. It was a time of befriending and being befriended in turn. The writer began to recognize a self-imposed structure.

For those in the Venice Beach arts community, there seemed no possible better place to be, this paradise where the wind blows over and by the palm trees as the seagulls floated above. It was a carefree environment in which the sun reflected its colors with playful warmth. There existed a world of dreams on the west side of Ocean Front Walk – the artists’ side. The east side was the far-different world of the merchants, facing their own challenges of paying their astronomically high rents.

These years were filled with learning what it’s like to a part of the greater collective, humanity itself. 

The artists were a tight knit group organized around the ideal that they were making a difference with their actions as they tried to keep the spirit of those who came before them alive.

The Venice arts community at the beach was identifiable according to the particulars of their output. It was free and without leadership. The vibrancy of art permeated the local and the wider community. Encounters with different artistic traditions brought greater self-realization. It was a time for passion.

Things changed after 2005 with the coming of the first lottery system for assigning spots for artists and performers. The lottery was seen as the solution to various complaints. However, with the new system came its enforcement. The artists were told they must conform or else there would be a police-enforced response. Many of those in the arts community understood the new system to be the bully approach. 

The city seemed to be ignoring that that community had built the Venice arts environment into the free, vibrant, and dynamic scene that it had become. There was a growing sense of outrage over the city’s lack of recognition of their contribution to an arts scene that had established an international standing. The truth is that these artists represented the continuing spirit of Abbot Kinney and Arthur L. Reese from 1914. The city must learn that this free spirit is something to treasure rather than to suppress.

The beach had long been in the vanguard of free speech, which was under attack. That attack intensified with a new and harsher lottery system that was forcibly put in place in 2008. The new system attempted to place the artists, performers, and others into a framework of an I zone and a P zone. Not only is the new system very confusing to artists including the writer, even the police admit that they do not understand it. When questioned about the meaning of the newly posted signs, they say they are not exactly sure of what is required. As a consequence, they do not use the language of the signs for guidance. However, the city attorney has encouraged the police to break the remaining spirit of Abbot Kinney. Many in the creative community responded as best they could, but others stood by and watched as the police rousted the guardians of that spirit. This may have represented a planned divide-and-conquer strategy by the city. The city seemingly rejected the community’s intention to work with it.

By way of background, the lottery system seems to have sprung from a new and repressive attitude by some of those in power. One freelance writer for The Los Angeles Times wrote a story on the Venice beach caretakers, whom the city had begun to see as a wild and bizarre bunch who were more a blight than a delight. This was reflected in the contract the city wanted the caretakers to sign in order to be able to use the west side of the walk. Once in place, the lottery system employed the police to break the spirit of the arts community.

The sudden increase in police oversight led to the city’s representative meeting with some of those in the arts community. However, the meeting was inconsequential because of the absence of the city’s real leaders. Soon those who had been free-spirited artists were being cited by the police for violating the new rules.

The artists of Venice Beach were told to give the city time to adjust its plan. But from the first the plan was doomed because there were no competent leaders to develop an effective plan. Instead, the plan went forward with the apparent mission of pushing the artists away from Venice beach. After all, they were seen as little more than troublemakers.

The artists felt they could not be wrong for protecting a dead founder’s wishes. Those who read the new regulations as summed up in handouts and posted on signs were troubled by the city’s apparent willingness to ignore previous commitments of a lifetime agreement and to force artists to give their work for free to anyone who asked for it. It seemed that the city was willing to break the law in order to break the artists. In 2008, the police have been treating the artists as vagrants to be pushed around, lied to, and threatened. There must be more for the police to do at Venice beach than harassing and ticketing artists.

The new twist on the lottery came at the same time as the boardwalk was redesigned with new trash cans spaced 30 feet apart. Their design makes emptying them difficult and the result is that accumulated trash and dog waste can sit rotting for weeks and drawing vermin until the city gets around to emptying the containers. By now nearly everyone has noticed the infestation of Venice beach with biting flies, which had never been a problem in past years, but the city has ignored the problem this year. A further consequence beyond the degradation of the environment for the artists and visitors is that there is much less space available for artists to present their creations. 

The handouts and signs summarize the ordinance as requiring the restriction of free speech and the loss of the right to private property. The activities allowed in any spot are prescribed and proscribed. Artists are forced to give away their property to anyone asking for it, even to their competitors. Beach users get this art in the name of the city, but the cost is borne by the artists. How can it be constitutional in America to force people to give away their private property to others? Artists cannot be expected to work for nothing. It must be remembered that the artists at Venice beach have become a tourist destination known around the world. The artists are already doing their part to support their city. Yet, those who resist are arrested, handcuffed, and treated like common criminals. It must be remembered that the original lottery system of 2005 had promised the artists that the agreement was lifetime. However, the new system overturned the protections of the original one, leading to the ex post facto problem. The city had unilaterally terminated a lifetime agreement with the artists without their permission. That was unfair. Years before there had been a permanent injunction granted to protect free-speech rights at Venice beach. That injunction remains in force, but the city seems to be covering it up and confusing its citizens. To the extent the city itself is a lawbreaker, the city is an outlaw and its officials are criminals who are abusing their power to serve the community.

In response, a small group of artists has made citizen arrests of those who violated the lifetime permanent agreement of the first lottery. At City Hall their names were called out, but they did not flee. So they remain under arrest according to law. The artists are seeking that the city attorney enforce these citizen arrests.

Currently, 75 artists have asked the U.S. Attorney’s office to enforce the laws. The police are only doing what the city asks of them. However, the abrasive contacts between police and artists are shocking and traumatizing to the artists.

Of course, conflicts with police often lead to deaths in this city. Artists have begun to think about what these conflicts might mean for them. Artists deserve greater appreciation and respect. They are merely trying to make a living in these difficult times. The city should treasure them, not disrespect them. 

A balance needs to be found between the interests of the city and those of the Venice beach community. The present tumult is an unnecessary complication. There are two renowned artists of Venice beach who should be turned to: Larry Bell and Robert Graham. They live and work near the boardwalk. Both are supporters of the artists of Venice beach.

In order to deal with this festering problem, the city council should show leadership by putting together a team to allow Venice beach to continue to be the artistic showcase that has been its tradition. The city’s actions to this point suggest the existence of a hidden agenda of pushing the artists out so as to benefit some more powerful and influential constituency. 

Samuel Brantley has been a California State Assembly-appointed Commissioner of Art, Music and Culture since 2005. He is writing from the point of view of one who has been homeless in Venice for the past six years and is a witness to the area’s transformation.

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