A Doubtful Process

Dear Members of the Santa Barbara City Council,

Unfortunately, I cannot attend today’s City Council Meeting to address my concerns about current efforts to go forward with the Master Plan for renovating Ortega Park, that includes the proposed destruction of its historic Chicano/Chumash community murals.

As an art historian who specializes in the history of muralism in the Americas, with a research focus on Chicano/Latino murals, I have spent time studying the mural cluster at Ortega Park within the context of the history of muralism in California, and specifically within the contexts of community engagement, cultural contributions, and their ongoing historical value within the present for the various communities within Santa Barbara. As I wrote to you in an earlier letter for your March 9 meeting, these murals have considerable historic and ongoing significance for a number of Santa Barbara communities, as evidenced by the outpouring of community efforts over the past several months to save and restore these murals while also revitalizing the park facilities for all to enjoy.

I also wrote to the Historic Landmark Commission the following comments for their February 3, 2021, meeting. I believe they are relevant for your current deliberations.

The murals in this clusteraddress the historical moments when each was painted; togetherthey have created a shared narrative. …

If the historical and present significance of the Ortega Park mural cluster was understood, appreciated and accepted before the planning and design processes were begun, we would not be in the position we are today. Of necessity, we are now attempting to retrofit something of great value into an environment originally designed to dismiss it as having no value. What is needed is an inclusive, informed, democratic process in planning and design.

These hearings about the proposed redesign of the park and the future of its murals are really a conversation about whose city this is, who belongs in it, who has a voice that is listened to; whose history and culture has value, who’s at the table making decisions. If we accept that the members of the community surrounding Ortega Park fully belong in Santa Barbara, then we must also accept that these murals are a signifier of that belonging and must be protected.

On Saturday, April 24, there was an Ortega Park Community Workshop organized by City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, Parks and Recreation staff, City administration, members of the Santa Barbara Arts Advisory Council, the County Office of Arts and Culture, and the One Community Bridge Project. City Councilmember Kristen Sneddon also provided leadership (information provided in a media release). This was a well-planned event with considerable early outreach into the community by numerous organizations to ensure good attendance — and the opportunity to educate everyone on the history, significance and value of these murals. An unannounced, heretofore unknown and unexpected new committee calling itself the Save Ortega Part Art Committee, led by Ricardo Venegas, appeared during the workshop and spoke at some length, indicating support for the current Master Plan that in effect calls for the destruction of the existing murals. Its efforts and its high visibility within the Saturday workshop directly contradict the efforts since November 2020 of the Ortega Park Mural Rescue Project and its allies within the community.

The unexpected appearance of this new and unknown committee begs several questions. Who are its organizers? How were its members recruited? Why does it appear now? What are the goals of this committee? And why has its membership not made any outreach efforts to other community-based committees or other efforts on behalf of Ortega Park and its murals? What is its relationship to the residents surrounding Ortega Park and other users of the park?

Based on the above, one can conclude the following:

  • that this new committee’s apparent but not transparent affiliation with or endorsement by Parks and Recs officials,
  • that its appearance without any prior informing of workshop organizers, or prior effort to work with workshop organizers,

indicates a cynical effort on the part of this city agency to divide the community.

It is an effort to proceed with the current Ortega Park Master Plan with the “endorsement” of the community as represented by this “independent and so-called community-based” committee. This new committee’s spoken goals are in direct opposition to months’ long efforts from within the community to save and restore this historic and still vital community mural cluster.

Based on Saturday’s events and subsequent communications, it has become evident that there is not a transparent and good-faith effort on the part of the Department of Parks and Recreation to work with those members of the community who want to save and restore the murals while also wanting to have the opportunity to revitalize park facilities.

Given these new developments, I would encourage the City Council to scrap the current Master Plan, direct the Department of Parks and Recreation to restart the planning process with the creation of a new collaborative planning effort that involves all stakeholders from the very beginning, an effort where members of the communities served by Ortega Park have a place and a decision-making voice at the table throughout the entire process.

Holly Barnet-Sanchez is emerita associate professor of Latin American, Latino, and Chicano Art History in the Department of Art and Art History — and the former associate dean of the College of Fine Arts — at the University of New Mexico.


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