Friday, January 30, 2009

Commissioner Sasha Anawalt resigns in protest

Sasha Anawalt has resigned from the Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission, stating that the recent decision by City Council was "a poor and cowardly decision for which the citizens ultimately pay. The word is out among the artists in Pasadena, in Los Angeles, and it may spread across the network of America's 100,000 arts organizations and also abroad: Engage with Pasadena at one's own peril. Public art can and will be censored by a powerful few. And, yes, censorship is an appropriate word."

Anawalt is a significant presence in the arts community, both locally and at a national level; she runs programs at the Annenberg School at USC in arts journalism, and the Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater for the National Endowment for the Arts. She brought a deep understanding of the issues and an important perspective on the artist and his/her creative process. Her resignation is a blow to the Commission, the community and the ongoing dialogue about importance of art in our lives.

Full text of Anawalt's letter:

Dear Colleagues:
I resign my position as Commissioner for the fifth district on the Arts & Culture Commission. My eye is fixed on the artists, Hans Peter Kuhn and Dennis Oppenheim, whose work was left undefended last night by us on the Commission.*

My eye is also on our citizens who must see $150,000 and three years of work be regarded as negligible; this is an unconscionable waste. On the Commission, we approved a particular position on December 10 and we were superseded by City Manager, Michael Beck, and staff who presented a different position last night. To me, the democratic process established by the Arts & Culture Commission is not democratic when a few can dictate and alter what the body has in good conscience decided, using its collective expertise and valuable volunteer hours.

The decision last night not to move ahead and approve Kuhn and Oppenheim's works was a poor and cowardly decision for which the citizens ultimately pay. The word is out among the artists in Pasadena, in Los Angeles, and it may spread across the network of America's 100,000 arts organizations and also abroad: Engage with Pasadena at one's own peril. Public art can and will be censored by a powerful few. And, yes, censorship is an appropriate word.

I am sorry for my decision to resign, because I very much enjoyed the company of each and every one of you and of my fellow commissioners. I know I can do more on the outside for Pasadena than I can on the inside. Had there been a more healthy, robust coverage of this issue in the media, perhaps the Council, the Commission, Michael Beck and the Pasadena Cultural Affairs staff would have stopped to think, question and examine the repercussions of participating in a late date decision that the art is, for whatever reason, unworthy.

In fairness, I have been taxed by the amount of time this Commission has taken in my schedule and have been weighing whether I can keep it up for some time now. The scales tipped last night. But I still believe in my heart in the value that an Arts & Culture Commission can have -- perhaps at another time in my life and in the Commission's.

I wish you all the best in the next stage.
Sincerely yours,

* Amendment 01/29/09 - I include myself foremost in this charge and regret that I did not speak up more loudly before or at all during the Council meeting. It concerns me that at this financially critical time, the Council's decision also means not giving jobs and work to those who would have forged and installed the sculptures. The Pasadena Civic Auditorium is regarded as "sacred," its plaza, too - so said several citizens who addressed the Council. But I believe that Kuhn and Oppenheim and their works, as well as the potential builders and installers are just as sacred. These artists and artisans were not treated with the same respect given the building and space that they worked so hard to honor. For this, I apologize.

Sasha Anawalt


  1. Bravo Sasha Anawalt! Thank you for taking a stand. Your action is particularly meaningful considering the faltering economy, and I hope that the City Council understands the significance and seriousness of your decision.

    As the news of this absurd situation begins to spread across the United States, Pasadena will recognize that its reputation has been forever tarnished, and with that potential economic investments.

    Imagine: Will groups and conferences want to stage their events in a convention center that has an international reputation for narrow-mindedness and backward thinking, that is hostile to contemporary culture and democratic process? Who would want that cloud over them? It certainly doesn't create an inspiring context for people to come together.

    The failure of the City Council to recognize that this is about far more than simply art is not only embarrassing but troubling. Just how incompetent are these people?

  2. Here's a link to the LA Times article about the resignation:

  3. Unhappily, we are losing an articulate and thoughtful member of the Arts and Culture Commission. But I applaud Sasha for taking a principled stand that will help educate and inform the debate taking place.

    As to censorship -- there is the proactive/aggressive form of censorship, agenda-driven censorship, which is a nasty business and I have no reason to think any of Pasadena's city-council members are nasty people. But then there's also a benign/uninformed kind of censorship, ignorance-driven censorship, and that's where our City Council allowed themselves to become trapped in this situation.

    The tragedy is, they have a process already in place to avoid such an embarrassment to the city -- the Arts and Culture Commission and the Cultural Affairs Division, where deliberations and decisions about art are made in Pasadena. It's the City Council's own process! But in making their decision, the Council ignored their process and the determination of their Commission on the arts, and instead accepted a recommendation of the City Manager. What does the City Manager know about art? And even if he does know something about art, why would he and the City Council act unilaterally in opposition to the Commission they have certified as the entity to which they will delegate such authority?

    Both the City Manager and the Council were wrong to have usurped the democratic public process that had already resulted in the selection of these two sculptures, and force themselves onto the city's public arts process -- not to mention having allowed themselves to stumble into playing the role of censor. The message they sent is one of surly treatment of the arts by Pasadena government, and insensitivity to the three years, thousands of hours, $150,000, and good-faith investment of artistic talent, time, and energy that their decision blithely dismissed.

  4. And what was up with the shark-skin suit guy that heads up the Arts and Culture Commission? Jumbo/Mumbo/Dumbo. Did not have squat to say about the Council's recommendation or offer any defense of it. Looks like Sasha Anawalt was fighting a war on two fronts - Politistan and Suntanistan. No wonder she jumped ship!

  5. Bravo Sasha. It's about time our civic leaders realized that our cultural life didn't end after the Arts and Crafts movement was over. They're acting like the little old ladies of Pasadena.