Behind State Street’s Public Art

This Is Art? There’s an old joke about a committee that was appointed to design a horse but came up with a camel instead. Well, name a committee to come up with public art and I’ll show you stuff that the public will throw rocks at, in print and at coffee shops if not the real thing.

A few years ago, some exotic State Street art was plopped down and promptly labeled “dinosaur dung.” Now a kind of wheel that resembles the McDonald’s logo graces—some say defaces—State (pictured at right by Sue De Lapa). Some people are howling and wondering who okayed it and why. (We’re in a bloody quagmire in Iraq and this is what people are steamed up about?)mcds%20photo.jpg

I find the “wheel” and other quirky but temporary displays along State a well-meaning attempt to not only bring art—love it or leave it—to the public and stimulate discussion, but also to enliven the otherwise boring mall-like scene. On that score, we could learn some lessons from Ventura’s Main Street, a fun place to stroll.

Jim McCoy (pictured at right) of McConnell’s Ice Cream was curious, as good citizens should be, about how the wheel decision was made and by whom. “If it is true that there are 89,000 Santa Barbarans, surely 80 thousand would be interested in the story behind the ‘art work’ on State Street,” he told me. “Who are these people? Where did they get their power? Who appointed them? Who monitors them? How is art selected? Who decides where it is placed? Who decides how long it will stay? Are they paid? If so how much? Where does the money come from?


While we are at it,” McCoy went on, “how did those colorful gates at the beach happen with no famous Santa Barbara brouhaha? Whoever got them built with no publicity certainly has pull and power. To me, they are an off-tune jazz band in the middle of the beautiful symphony that is Santa Barbara. Based on my experience with tables and chairs on State Street, window displays and the painting of my buildings, if city bureaucracy does not approve, then projects simply don’t happen.”

I asked Mayor Marty Blum (pictured below) about all this. “I know Jim McCoy,” Marty told me. “Great harmonica player.”


According to Marty, the City Council appoints the City Arts Advisory Committee, whose executive director is Ginny Brush, and names its seven members. City Council member Helene Schneider (pictured at right) is liaison. helene.jpg

“The city partially funds the arts commissioner’s position,” Marty told me. “She also wears the hat of the county arts commissioner. I am not sure how that works. There are subcommittees under the Arts Advisory Committee like Visual Arts in Public Places, which okays all the art in public places. In addition there was an ad hoc committee that came together for the purpose of choosing art for State Street. Here is how it happened: “The Council directed the Arts Committee to have another art show on State Street. You might remember the controversial show a few years back with one English artist. I won’t go into what people said about that but it was controversial and we decided to cool it awhile,” the mayor explained. (That would be the dinosaur dung exhibit, I presume.) “So this year, the Council gave some funds from the Redevelopment Agency for another art show on State Street.” (The Redevelopment Agency is funded by taxes from merchants in a district centered on downtown.)

Marty assured, “We did not buy the sculptures, only had them put up and they will be taken down, so it did not cost a lot. This time we asked for local artists, several of them, judged by a committee of citizens. Rita Ferri was chosen as the curator of the show. She was aided by a committee who chose what you see on State Street. They were not paid.” According to the mayor, these State Street structures are slated to be removed in a few weeks. As for McCoy’s other concern—the square rainbow on Cabrillo Boulevard—that went up before the reign of Marty, she think sometime in the ‘80s. “I don’t know how that came about,” said Marty, “but I do know that there is money to keep it maintained—repainted, lit, etc.”

Well, Marty, the Chromatic Gate, as it’s known, did kick up quite a controversy when it went up, using private funds as I recall. What was it, people asked, and whatever it was, was it appropriate in that waterfront location across Cabrillo Boulevard from East Beach?

Anyone who complained was labeled a dunce who didn’t understand the first thing about sculpture or anything else. About the time people got used to the Chromatic Gate people howled that the colors were fading and it looked disgraceful. So money was found to keep it looking bright and shiny and rainbow-like. I don’t hear any more complaints, but no doubt some tourists raise their eyebrows and wonder.

But then they probably think: Well, this IS California and this IS Santa Barbara and you know how arty THIS place is and how much they love to show off their appreciation for art right out in public instead of stuffing it in museums. All I can say is that this too will pass soon, even if the Iraq war doesn’t.

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