The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission voted Thursday at a well-attended special meeting to move a provocative art piece from the foyer down the hallway at the Bettervaria Center. Bob Nelson, chief of staff to Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam, took down the piece — which reads “BUY SEXUAL” on top of red-wallpapered “69.99” price tags — last week shortly after it had been mounted in a prominent place in the Santa Maria government building as part of a three-month exhibit called “Love + Guts.”
Nelson and Adam found the Steve Olson piece inappropriate for a public space and were disheartened the commission decided not to take the piece down altogether, upholding a decision made Monday by the CAPP (County Art in Public Places) committee. “The fact they have to move it…is an omission by arts commission that it is inappropriate,” Nelson said in an interview.
On Thursday, Nelson was the sole public commenter out of about a dozen who urged the commission to take down the piece. “The primary use of the building is government,” he said. “The secondary use is a gallery.” All of the rest argued removal of the piece is a form of censorship and possibly a violation of the First Amendment. The debate has taken off in the blogosphere and both sides have created online petitions.
Love + Guts is a group of skateboarding artists whose work is showed all over the world. It includes well-known artists such as Pat Ngoho, Christian Hosoi, Peggy Oki, Steve Caballero, and others. There will be an opening reception for the gallery on Saturday at 5 p.m. after a skateboard session held by the group in San Luis Obispo earlier that afternoon.
Steve Olson, who is credited with revolutionizing skateboarding in the 1970s, said the piece is social commentary about the commodification of sex. “It’s extremely truthful. If the truth hurts, I’m sorry,” Olson said. “It’s not meant to be offensive.”
John Hood, who coordinated the exhibit and sits on the Arts Commission, apologized to the CAPP committee Monday because the piece was not one of the ones they had approved. The committee had approved another Olson piece, but when Hood unwrapped the piece in Santa Maria, after driving to pick it up in Los Angeles, he was surprised to see it was a different one. He said he did not securely fasten it because he thought people might take issue with it in a government space. The Arts Commission is made up of 15 members, three appointed by each supervisor.
“People understand a bit of a bait and switch that occurred,” Nelson argued, noting a few committee members noted they might have thought twice about approving that particular Olson piece.
After county officials were made aware of the incident last week, staff put the piece back up for the time being until the Arts Commission voted on the matter. A county employee has since been rumored to claim the piece created a hostile work environment, but Community Services Department director George Chapjian said he had not received a call or email from any employees about that. Nelson would not say if he plans to take further action to appeal the decision.