Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ears to the Wall

Anyone attending last week's Public Art Subcommittee meeting would have noticed the front-row seats reserved for representatives of the Pasadena Center Operating Company. As was noted in the previous post, the meeting had been called for the purpose of having (to quote the agenda) "a Discussion of creating an Amended PCOC Artist Selection Process." But, as we saw, there was no discussion at all.

Last night, 58 days after the City Council mandated that the PCOC sit down in a public forum with the Arts & Culture Commission to discuss options, the PCOC Board met and passed a resolution to create an ad hoc committee to participate in those discussions. Seems unnecessary, as they already had an "expansion committee" in place to work on issues related to the new center...but before the creation of this new committee, Board Chair Tom Seifert remarked that his group had attended the March 18th Public Art Subcommittee meeting simply in order "to listen" to the conversation.

Representatives of the arts community in the audience at this board meeting were stunned to hear Seifert's representation of events. It was, as one arts supporter noted, supposed to have been a discussion, not an invitation to "put their ears to the wall to hear what was being said next door."

Efforts by the Pasadena Arts Council and others are being made to build a bridge between the arts community and the PCOC leadership in the hopes of avoiding the sort of collision that may result if PCOC continues to insist that the Art at Pasadena Center planning document be summarily dismissed -- a document that members of the PCOC Board themselves helped to create.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

That Was The Meeting That Wasn't

At least 50 members of the public (including notables Mayor Bogaard and wife Claire Bogaard, former Commissioner Sasha Anawalt, Planning & Development head Richard Bruckner and others) attended last night's Public Art Subcommittee meeting, convened to allow members of the Subcommittee to begin discussing the "amended artist selection process" with the Pasadena Center Operating Company. Interestingly, by the time the meeting rolled around, the folks on the dais had begun calling it a meeting to "create an amended artist selection process," causing some in the audience to wonder whether the distinction was intentional. None of what the Arts & Culture Commission nor the Public Art Subcommittee has been charged with carries a specified outcome, only that the parties concerned consider alternatives and make another round of recommendations back to City Council. Re-recommending the original Kuhn and Oppenheim sculptures as planned is still an option.

And that is what was urged, encouraged, implored and respectfully requested by many audience members who were allowed to make public comments after Cultural Affairs Manager Rochelle Branch's powerpoint overview of the planning to date. Artists, educators, philanthropists, community leaders, curators, businesspeople, even a public art administrator for the City of Los Angeles (and a Pasadena resident) expressed varied points of view -- support for contemporary art, for the public art planning process, for allowing Pasadena to move purposefully into an artful future -- but all exhorted the Subcommittee and by extension the Commission to return to City Council with a sustained endorsement for the Kuhn and Oppenheim pieces.

A minority opinion was expressed by a small handful of heritage adherents, whose position is that the Civic Auditorium is art enough on the plaza and that the proposed artworks would interfere with the sightlines to the Civic, that the contemporary Lightfield and Thinking Caps just "don't fit."

And then the weirdest thing happened. The meeting, or whatever it was, was adjourned. One powerpoint presentation, lots of public comment pro and con, and then -- no meeting. The Subcommittee and City representatives, including Cultural Affairs, were assembled with mikes before them. Representatives from PCOC were in their reserved front-row seats. It looked like a meeting. It sounded like a meeting. It was billed as a meeting. But, no meeting. No discussion, let alone creation, of an amended artist selection process.

Lip service was paid to a future meeting, and a date to return to City Council -- Monday, April 27th, if they can pull it off in time.

Turns out that PCOC didn't get its act together in time to nominate, according to its Bylaws, representatives to sit on a committee charged with working alongside the Public Art Subcommittee on the getting-thornier-by-the-minute public art debacle. Of course, they've had since January 27th, the day after the City Council authorized this Round 2. You'd think they would be eager to get on with this "amended selection process" in the hope that it would net them the result (no art on the plaza) they want. Or maybe they're just stalling.

In any case, it would have been helpful and considerate for the Subcommittee to have explained to the assembled public why the meeting was being adjourned so abruptly. It wasn't their doing, after all, that caused the shut-down. And adding yet another layer of obfuscation just tempts suspicious minds when the appearance of preferential treatment is hard to ignore.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


When: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18, 5:30 pm

Where: Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E. Green St., Conference Room 211

The Pasadena public art situation has reached a crisis point, and the Pasadena Arts Council is calling on arts supporters, engaged citizens, artists of any medium or performance type, cultural and community leaders, and those who support an open democratic process to attend this meeting.

The meeting has been convened to attempt to sort out the problems created by the City Council's rejection of two artworks proposed by the Arts & Culture Commission for the new Civic Center plaza.

Much is at stake. The artworks were developed in response to a clearly (and process-driven) identified need for iconic sculptures in one of our few major public spaces -- an opportunity for Pasadena to make a statement about itself as an "arts city," as a "cultural destination," as the city's own marketeers like to call it. The works were then tossed out by the City Manager and City Council, responding to a last-minute (and very suspicious) switcheroo on the part of the Convention Center operators.

And why? To preserve more red carpet room for glitzy awards ceremonies held at the Civic? Or because some have decided that Pasadena must stay frozen in time, held forever hostage to some past architectural ideal? And when did "heritage" start meaning "interfering with the future"?

If we don't engage with what is going on right now, we will get what we deserve -- a cold, empty Convention Center Plaza, hundreds of thousands of dollars down the rat hole, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create important works of art squandered.

It is imperative that the arts community turn out for this meeting. You don't have to speak, you don't have to identify yourself, but you do have to be there if you believe that arts policy in Pasadena must not -- will not -- be hijacked.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Old and New

So on it goes. At this point, the ball is back in the Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission's court, which means it has entered the sub-court of the Public Art Subcommittee, and anyone feeling passionate, or even moderately tepid, about the issue should plan to attend. These subcommittee meetings are open to the public, just like the full Commission meetings, so check back here at Arts Answers for the date and time of the next subcommittee meeting.

While the bureaucrats are rassling and the pundits are pundicizing, over here at the PAC offices we have been considering the "old and new" question in broader terms. We'd like to open the discussion up to the community, and to get the conversation under way, we asked Stephen Nowlin (Director of Art Center's Williamson Gallery and PAC Board President) to give us his take on old and new. Steve has opined in the Comments section of this blog on previous occasions (and at City Council meetings), but we thought his viewpoint would be a great place to start:

"I'm reminded of a visit to the famous postmodern architect Charles Moore's Northern California house at Sea Ranch, in the late 1960's. Modernism had up to then been a series of sequestered moments in history, each one priding itself on having rebelled against, overturned, and made obsolete the hard-fought assumptions that had come before. Thus Impressionism was supplanted by Cubism, Cubism by Constructivism, Constructivism by Surrealism, Surrealism by Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism by Minimalism. By then, in architecture, Louis Sullivan's "form follows function" and Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" ruled, and the minimal reductive International Style was tantamount to an aesthetic moral imperative. Everyone reveled in the superiority of a sequential time -- and the more present, the more superior.

"So I entered Moore's contemporary, angular, barn-like home expecting to worship in the Religion of Now as a card-carrying young aesthete knew was the godly thing to do. Instead, my religion was shattered. Inside, Moore's house broke all the rules, reinforced no doctrines, confirmed no righteousness -- it was a den of iniquity, a sinful repudiation of everything sleek and au courant. Antique furniture, curious objects of non-western culture, ornate rugs, curios, the old and the new, the high and the low, all melded together in a cacophony of overlapping histories. No precious dogmas reigned, no one history dominated. It was loving embrace of all moments, all pasts, all the good products of human artistic endeavor. In their mingling, each shone with its own dignity and added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

"There is, in honoring the resonance between old and new, a certain liberation from the sense that different generations, styles, and traditions represent insurmountably conflicted values and beliefs. Like differing people in a family or a community or a country, histories exist side-by-side, and their interlocking mosaic is what gives the present its richness and depth.

"In the matter of the Pasadena Center sculptures, some have argued that the contrast between historical architecture and contemporary sculpture is jarring -- that the sculpture and the architecture don't speak the same visual language, and so they can't communicate. Or worse, that the sculpture, by its presence, communicates disparagingly of the historical. There is, some have argued, a preservation issue at stake that cannot withstand the irritation of this new art next to these old buildings. It might be worth pointing out, although it seems somewhat absurd to have to do so, that most of the old buildings at the Pasadena Center are, well, new. They're not historical buildings at all, but rather brand new buildings that try to look historical by echoing some of the superficial characteristics of the actually historic Civic Auditorium. Sort of like Disneyland does on Main Street. The sculptures flank the auditorium far left and right and at the bottom of the steps to its grand entry, much closer to the contemporary faux-historical buildings than to the genuine one. It makes one wonder about the claim of preservation, or rather what is not being preserved -- because if preservation means that everything new, like some Hollywood film set, should confirm to a style frozen in a past moment of time, then there is no opportunity to celebrate a real history layered with multiple times.

"Postmodernism recognized over forty years ago that ending the cold war between the old and new allowed the quarreling realities and stimulating nuances enbedded in true history to inform a deeper and more profound aesthetic. We should not be afraid of the old and the new together, we should welcome it. It will add to all else that is intelligent and extraordinary about our city of Pasadena."