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"Distressed" Arts Commission Learns Why Santa Monica Lost Its Iconic Mural
By Jorge Casuso
June 20, 2019 -- A "distressed" Arts Commission on Monday grilled the City's top cultural official on how Santa Monica could lose one of its most famous public artworks without the public knowing.
The Arts Commission placed the item on the agenda after its members learned late last month that Millard Sheets' iconic "Pleasures Along the Beach" mosaic had been donated to a museum in Orange County.
The 40-foot-wide glass and ceramic mosaic -- which has stood on the corner of 26th Street and Wilshire Boulevard for 50 years -- was removed under a settlement agreement with the building's owner approved by the City Council last September.
But since then, the Commission, like the public, had been kept in the dark ("SPECIAL REPORT -- How Santa Monica Lost Its Iconic Half-Century Old Mosaic," June 7, 2019).
They didn't know that in January the City had turned down a mural that had become emblematic of Santa Monica's lifestyle, saying it would be too costly to relocate or maintain.
Or that the City had no plans to help find a suitable recipient in the beach town for which it was created.
"When I read the article" in the Lookout, Commission Vice Chair Corin Kahn said, "I blew my stack. I was really upset.
"This cannot happen again," Kahn told the City's cultural staff. "This was an embarrassment to us and a real loss to the city."
"I find it unfathomable the City didn't reach out to this commission," said Commissioner Phil Brock. "We would have done a broad broadcast. I feel the community would have rallied."
City officials, Kahn said, knew in May 2018 that the judge in the lawsuit had issued a preliminary ruling giving the building's owner the go-ahead to remove the mural.
"We've had a year to look at this," Kahn said. "We've had four (Commission) meetings" since the settlement agreement was reached.
That was plenty of time, Commissioners said, to rally the community and give the Santa Monica Arts Foundation the visible fundraising project it has been looking for.
Commission Chair Myers said he got a glimpse of what might have been after news broke this month that the mural had been donated to the Hilbert Museum of California Art in the City of Orange ("Iconic Santa Monica Mural Finds New Home in Orange County," June 5, 2019).
"I've heard from deep-pocketed Santa Monicans who would have written $20,000-dollar checks," said Meyers, who works with non-profits.
Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut said her staff determined that given the size of the mural, as well as "the timeline and budget, we did not see it would be feasible" to find a place for the mural.
After rejecting the artwork, her department provided the owner, Mark Leevan, with a list of six possible recipients. None of them were located in Santa Monica.
Brock asked, "Did we approach the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District or Santa Monica College?"
Kahn wondered why the list didn't include major developers with projects in the pipeline that must give the City a percentage of the cost of the development for public art.
Brock agreed. "Why didn't we reach out," he said. "Why didn't we publicize this."
Daut said the timing was unfortunate. The City turned down the mural and her staff compiled the list during a particularly busy time.
"We are severely understaffed," she said. "We can't do everything."
In adddition, she said, the lawsuit made it "a really extraordinary" and "highly complex charged situation" that did not involve a City owned artwork.
"Our attention was in a lot of different places, so we're getting information from the City Attorney's office, closed session, 'Here is what you need to do.'
"At the time, I was just basically following orders on what I needed to do with this project. It had a lot of complexities that maybe I didn't understand fully."
Vice Chair Kahn, an attorney who said he had read the settlement, disagreed it was complex.
"The settlement agreement is very clear," Kahn said. "'City, try to find a place for this. City, get engaged in the process.' It didn't happen."
Daut apologized to the Commission.
"Yes, we should have brought it to you," she said. "We didn't do this intentionally.
"I think City Council would agree, and I would agree, that this is a huge loss, and I apologize for not making sure that this came before you."
In the end, the Commissioners unanimously voted to approve a resolution requiring staff to inform them of the potential loss of any other publicly displayed artwork.
"This is heartbreaking," said Commissioner Mary-Elizabeth Michaels. "This is one of the most beloved things we have in the City."
"I fully believe we would have kept this mural in Santa Monica," Brock said, "and it wouldn't have been a Herculean effort.
"We didn't have a chance to get in the game," he said. "And that's the frustrating thing."
After the meeting, the Lookout requested a statement from Daut. In part, it read:
"We take seriously the feelings of the Arts Commission and the community’s love of 'Pleasures Along the Beach.'
"We are happy to know the mosaic will remain in Southern California where beach culture resonates broadly."
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