Following a stir among county insiders over a provocative piece of artwork that was taken down from the Bettervaria Center in Santa Maria last week by Bob Nelson — chief of staff to Supervisor Peter Adam — the CAPP (County Art in Public Places) committee voted Monday to move the piece from the front foyer to a more discreet location in the county building.
Last Tuesday, under the direction of Adam, Nelson took down the Steve Olson piece — which reads “BUY SEXUAL” on top of red-wallpapered “69.99” price tags — and put it in a closet because he found it “obscene” and inappropriate for a government building. Late Friday afternoon, county staff put the piece back up, where it will stay until the commission makes the final decision at a special meeting on Thursday, before the exhibit’s opening reception on Saturday.
On Monday, John Hood, a fine arts professor at Allan Hancock College who coordinated the exhibit and sits on the Arts Commission, apologized to the committee because the artwork was not one of the pieces they reviewed when they approved a sample of the exhibit. The piece is from LOVE + GUTS, a group of skateboarding-inspired artists whose work has been shown all over the world for the past decade.
Hood said he was a little shocked when he unwrapped the piece in question upon arriving in Santa Maria — after picking the pieces up in Los Angeles — because it was different from the one the committee approved. He said he realized people might take issue with the piece in such a public venue, but after a long day of driving, Hood decided to put the artwork up for the time being.
The piece, which was made a decade ago by skater icon and internationally recognized artist Steve Olson, is about the commodification of sex and its prevalence in TV and social media, Hood said. “We can’t avoid it,” Hood added. He went on to say Olson believes “it’s just words,” but, he added, “we all know what words can do.”
LOVE + GUTS is also currently showing art in Spain, and Hood said he believed the exhibit would bring the work of well-known artists, such as Pat Ngoho, Christian Hosoi, Peggy Oki, and Steve Caballero, to a small agriculture community.
A few committee members were adamant in their opposition to censorship, but acknowledged they might not have approved the piece for the exhibit in the government building had it come before them in the first place.
To the surprise of at least one committee member, District Attorney Joyce Dudley showed up to the meeting of 20 or so. She didn’t speak, but in an interview after the meeting, Dudley said she thought the piece was a poor choice for the lobby because the concept of buying sexuality parallels human trafficking. Second, Dudley said she was concerned bisexual employees would feel the piece created a hostile work environment in the county building.
On the flipside, Art Commissioner chair Gerardo Ayala reasoned art is sometimes controversial. He likened the issue to an incident earlier this year when SBCC art students took down a teepee that saw opposition from Native American campus members. “I am not denying the piece is offensive to people in the community,” Ayala said, but he argued that a conversation about the piece could be beneficial. After the vote, Ayala said he was happy the committee decided to keep the piece in the show.
Nelson, on the other hand, expressed disappointment. He hoped the Arts Commission would deny the committee’s recommendation on Thursday, but would not comment about whether he would take further action if they did not do so.
Ginny Brush, the Art Commission’s executive director, noted their guidelines needed to be updated so that only staff can remove a piece. The committee voted to create an ad hoc committee to review the bylaws.