Santa Barbara’s City Council voted to try once more to snatch victory from the jaws of what appeared to be certain defeat of an $8.4 million grant application for a major renovation of the Eastside’s Ortega Park. At issue is the fate of 14 murals — a manifestation of Santa Barbara’s Chicano, Aztec, and Chumash heritages dating back to 1979.
The debate has been acrimonious, personal, politically charged, and culturally raw. Some muralists refused to meet with other muralists to even discuss their differences; some have refused to meet with City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who represents the city’s Eastside. Famed muralist Manuel Unzueta has indicated he wants three of his park murals kept in their current conditions, on the park’s bathroom walls. (Under the renovation plans, that bathroom would be torn down and rebuilt.)
The other muralists — responsible for the 11 other murals — have expressed a willingness to have their art recreated — or new art produced — on new walls of the renovated park; they support the grant designed to help underfunded parks in underserved communities get new leases on life. These muralists have expressed an interest in getting paid for their work and in helping mentor a new generation of young muralists.
Without consensus, the city could not apply for the grant, missing the chance to make the desperately needed improvements. The grant deadline is thought to be June 12, but with little clear idea how to proceed and little idea how much time is actually left, the council instructed Parks and Recreation czar Jill Zachary to send the controversial renovation proposal to the Arts Advisory Council for review.
As a failsafe, Councilmember Kristen Sneddon suggested that each artist be empowered to say what can happen to their artwork. If that means allowing the current bathroom with Unzueta’s three murals to remain standing, Zachary said, that might be a workable compromise.
In addition, the council voted to create a new commission on the murals and to acknowledge Ortega Park as being historically and culturally significant to the city’s Chicano-Chumash heritage.