Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pasadena City Council Votes to Send Public Art Proposal Back to the Drawing Board

At last night's Pasadena City Council meeting, the Council voted to reject a recommendation by the Arts & Culture Commission to install works it had solicited and approved by internationally-known sculptors Hans Peter Kuhn and Dennis Oppenheim at the new Pasadena Center plaza, and instead accept a recommendation by City Manager Michael Beck to seek alternatives. The decision followed impassioned public comment from both sides of the debate; the discussion encompassed specific points of contention such as sight lines and structural issues, and wider contexts of policy, finances, aesthetics, heritage, even the purpose of art itself.

To this point the Pasadena Arts Council has not taken a position on either side of this public art debate. However, it is the mission of this organization to speak for, advocate for, and defend the arts.

The process was followed in accordance with policy and procedure. The Arts & Culture Commission, in recommending that the artworks be placed on the plaza of the Pasadena Center, adhered to the guidelines that were created expressly for this process, and the only reason the matter was before the City Council was the stipulation on approval of expenditures over a specific amount.

It has become fashionable to quote our new President. However, we here paraphrase one who preceded him, John F. Kennedy, who spoke to the nation's responsibility to current and future generations: "The nation which disdains the mission of art has nothing to look backward on with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope." Substitute the word "city" for "nation," and the message is clear.

Please take the new Quick Vote, and post your comments below.


  1. Having attended many of the Arts Commission meetings during which the process for the selection and siting of public art for the Grand Plaza played out, I could not help but be impressed with the efforts that were made to insure that the process that was followed was fair, thorough and by-the-book as required by the City of Pasadena. While all of the final choices were not ones that I would have personally made, I could not take issue with the means by which the artworks were selected, and I accepted them as reflecting a reasoned consensus of well meaning and dedicated individuals. Truth to tell, the exterior artworks that were decided upon have both grown on me, and, I was greatly looking forward to their installation and the statement they would make about our city as a forward looking and progressive municipality, a city that could glory in its rich past while simultaneously celebrating the inspiration that contemporary art can offer.

    With the Council's decision last night, it seems to me that both the arts and democratic values took a major hit. Emotions, personal judgments and political expediency appear to have won out, and, in my experience, when those priorities prevail over intelligent reasoning and established rules and procedures, there is good cause to question the quality of our representation and to ask: Whose interests do you truly serve?

    My hope last night had been that the leadership of the Arts Commission would - even in the face of possible defeat - have used the opportunity to carefully and fully reiterate the care that Arts & Cultural Affairs and the Arts Commission had dutifully taken to fulfill their obligations and that both bodies had provided every opportunity for PCOC and its allies to express their concerns from the earliest stages of the artwork selection process. As it was, the Commission's brief public comments and its request for a "one-time exception" fell considerably short of what I had expected from its leadership, and I believe it established a precedent of capitulation that is likely to cause sustained damage to the efforts of those in the community who are committed to giving authority to the claim that we are a community dedicated to the arts.

  2. I am absolutely disgusted. What else can a person say? Once again fear of the unknown has prevailed over reason.

    Pasadena has decided to cling to the vapid ideology of the Bush era, rather than advance with the rest of the country into the future. What happened to the Pasadena that once honored contemporary art by staging the first major exhibitions of Duchamp and Warhol?

    Maybe there is some old statues of Stalin, Mao and Saddam kicking around that we could install at the Pasadena Center. Or how about that old 'Rocky' statue from Philadelphia!

  3. I haven't known about this issue, and I don't really have a dog in this fight, but on first examination, I don't find the proposed work, as depicted in the right column (with the short descriptions/interpretations), to be of "world-class." Sadly, the first piece is not at all clear in the picture/rendering. The "hats"--well, I think that seems rather juvenile rather than world class or cutting edge.

    Of course, I don't claim expertise. Just offering an off-the-cuff respose.

  4. On October 24, 2006, the Pasadena Center Art Advisory Committee approved an Art Plan for the expenditure of one-percent-for-the-arts funds generated by construction of the Center. In reference to exterior artwork to be placed directly on the plaza, the Plan states:

    "The emphasis on the development of this commission MUST be directed toward the creation of an artwork whose presence is powerful enough to entice people to cross Green Street to see it and that provides users of the plaza with a sense of compelling adventure and expansive possibilities." (emphasis mine)

    The members of the Advisory Committee who authored this plan included three PCOC Board members, members of the historic preservation and arts and design communities, the project architect, two non-voting members of the Arts & Culture Commission, and PCOC and Cultural Affairs staff.

    Fast-forward nearly three years -- the solicitation, selection process, and naming of two internationally prominent sculptors, the development of two specific works of art, the expenditure of $150,000, hundreds of hours of dozens of people's time and talent, and the Art Plan has been fulfilled, to the letter, and approved by diverse Pasadena citizens sitting on the Arts and Culture Commission (each of them appointed by a member of the Pasadena City Council), and by dedicated, conscientious staff of the Pasadena Cultural Affairs Division.

    January 26, 2009, with the fruits of this multi-year collective labor about to blossom into works of public art that will challenge, engage, and enamor the people of Pasadena, the board chair of the Pasadena Center Operating Company (PCOC) walks into a City Council meeting to declare that he has changed his mind -- the PCOC has decided it does not want any sculpture on the exterior plaza.

    OK, says the City Council.

    Left swirling in the puff-cloud of this disappearing act, where all the good-faith endeavor of all those involved instantly vanished, are troubling questions about the future of public art in our city, and legitimate questions about the City Council's understanding of their boundaries when it comes to such matters.

    The Council could have said -- sorry, PCOC, but your late turnabout does not rise above the public interest, the safeguarding of which has been built into our process by the appointment of qualified citizens to sit on the Arts and Culture Commission and be charged with careful administration of one-percent funds, and the hiring of competent arts administration professionals to run the Cultural Affairs Division. Reversing their recommendation is not within our purview, based on your long-standing endorsement of the project parameters and your lack of substantive justification for last-minute changes which, if implemented, would cause an enormous amount of sincere hard work and at least $150,000 to have been squandered -- not to mention the loss of two "adventurous and expansive" works of public art.

    But the Council did not say that. Instead they stumbled forward, accepting almost without question the assumptions placed before them, candidly confessing to the audience their lack of expertise and understanding for the arts, before the inevitable "but...", without allowing such self-realization to inform a better judgment that authority in this case might be best delegated to the Commission they had appointed for just this sort of deliberation in the first place. Add to that the bizarre spectacle of critics of the sculpture plan repeatedly claiming their opposition had nothing to do with the sculptures themselves, but that satisfaction of their concerns could apparently only be achieved by the sculptures' removal from consideration. The "with the exception of the art itself, we like the art" school of appreciation.

    And now, Cultural Affairs director Rochelle Branch, who presented the project's history to Council during the meeting, is expected to... to what? She's directed to go back and explore new alternatives with the PCOC, whose tardy but firmly stated opposition which started this whole thing was that "no art could be placed on the plaza." If she convinces them otherwise, we're right back where we are now, which is nowhere, and if she doesn't convince them otherwise, then we're also nowhere.

    It was one weird meeting. And sadly in its wake is the City Council's new message to all adventurous artists, local as well as international, whose time and talent like everyone else's is valuable and carefully budgeted for a decent return on investment: "Don't risk Pasadena."

  5. Has anyone considered the possibility that the PCOC waited until the last minute to go public with their statement that they did not want ANY artworks on the Plaza for tactical reasons? Consider: PCOC knew that the matter of the public artwork to be placed on the Grand Plaza would have to go before the City Council, because the outlay of funds for the production of the artworks (although they had been allocated some time ago) exceeded the amount that the Cultural Affairs Department is authorized to pay out at any one time. Realizing that the democratic process that had been employed for the selection and placement of the artworks (one in which they had participated) had resulted in decisions not entirely to their liking, they could perhaps subvert the process by waiting, recruiting some excitable allies and then taking the battle to the City Council and recasting the issue its chambers - making it appear that their opposition to the agreed upon artworks had only to do with aesthetic and cultural heritage issues and not the fact that they wanted to subvert a democratic process that had led to a decision with which they were not entirely happy. How else to account for their last minute stand at City Council?

  6. Sounds like the suits got duped.

  7. Problem is, there are suits at PCOC AND suits on the City Council....

  8. Being an arts professional (and a Pasadena Citizen), I have discussed this issue with my colleagues. In many cities, the '1% for Art' program is handled by the Department of Cultural Affairs. That is, the money goes directly to a fund that the city manages. The call to artists (RFQ/P), the application process, the public informational meetings, the public input, the choosing of the artists, the issuing of money and the art installation is all handled by the city itself, with input from the Arts Council and citizens along the way. This process tends to be slow, but it gets buy-in from citizens. Buy-in is necessary when erecting art that by it's very name- public art- means 'for everyone'. A transparent process insures resulting art will be reflective of the character of the community and becomes a point of pride. I would like to suggest that Pasadena change it's process; take the money from the developers who may or may not know about art, but certainly don't necessarily know how to engage in a community process which will elicit approval from the denizens of Pasadena.

    One other small bone I have to pick- a mural does not have a "statute of limitations". Murals that were approved by the Arts Council have been designated to have a '5 year life span'. By this they mean they will only protect the mural for 5 years. After that, anyone can mar, tag or vandalize it and they will do nothing to repair it. For artists, this is not tenable. If you are concerned about the cost of preservation, then put up a mural which has been printed on a banner. Replace it if it becomes vandalized. Again, the best method of protection against vandalism is community buy-in. If the community is proud of its mural, it will see that it is protected. If Michelangelo were told that the chapel he was painting wouldn't be protected past 5 years, would he have painted it? There are many ways to address protection concerns- I believe this is one of the Arts' Council's by-laws that needs to be changed.
    Cybele Garcia Kohel

  9. Cybele -- I think the way Pasadena manages their one-percent program is in fact very similar to your description above. I believe that the developer can hire an art consultant who solicits artists to create concepts -- but beyond that the artists' concepts must be approved by the Arts and Culture Commission in open public meetings, and the Commission is made up of volunteer citizens appointed by City Council members. Pasadena's Cultural Affairs department holds the money in trust, I believe, and manages its dispersion and oversees each project from beginning to finish, and makes certain the process is inclusive of all stakeholders.

    Also, just to clarify since you mentioned the "Arts Council" -- there's lots of organizations in our community with Pasadena, Arts, Commission, Council, Alliance etc, in their name, so sometimes it gets confusing. The Pasadena Arts Council (host of this blog), is a private non-profit organization that advocates for and facilitates the arts. It is not a city agency. It's website is pasadenaartscouncil.org.

  10. How much does the art consultant make? Aren't art consultants like gallery owners in that they have a list of their own people they represent. That being the case, the bigger art stars in their stable the more competitive they are. Those stars are rarely local therefor not engaged with the city. Furthermore, aren't art consultants often in competition with one another to head differing projects. I like the larger broader call to artists.

  11. SN:
    I have some issues concerning developers bringing in an artist they select (yes it does happen and I could point out a case to you) or hire a consultant (another problem in that consultants are in competition with one another and often have their own stable of artist). One can say this simplifies things in that it takes some of the paper work off a arts administrators desk but that certainly narrows down the field. I'm on your side in terms of how this all went down. I've worked with MP and am aware that it was an open call. This is nasty affair is not unfamiliar territory for Pasadena. I saw this occur years back when artist Rod Baer won a open call city commission and then Major Rick Cole overturned the commission in favor of Zorthian (Water and Power plant on Fair Oaks) Nothing ever came of the commission except law suits.