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
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
(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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