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Making the Case for Public Art in Sierra Madre

What types of pieces of artwork would you like to see displayed in public places?

In 2007, the City of Sierra Madre adopted a Cultural Arts Master Plan. The city sent out surveys, held roundtable discussions with local artists and other residents (I went to at least one), talked to arts organizations and funders, and did a lot of homework on the history of the city as an artists' colony. It is a truly community-driven document.

The document itself outlines several goals for creating a more robust and vibrant artistic community and objectives to help promote opportunities for local artists to thrive and to contribute to the city's cultural development.

One of those goals is the creation and promotion of some type of public art program. So what is public art? It is a work of art placed in some public commons location. The intent can be to educate, to memorialize, to spur discussion or interaction, or simply to beautify a space. Pieces are usually sponsored or commissioned by some local government body since the work is typically placed in a municipally owned location. And because of that they are free to the public to view and appreciate. They aren't part of a private gallery or museum or personal collection.

We have a few of these scattered through town if you think about it. Lew Watanabe's Weeping Wall in Memorial Park. The Veteran's Memorial photo wall also in the park. The little statue outside City Hall. The tile mosaic wall hanging inside the YAC. What else am I missing?

The work of moving through the goals of the Cultural Arts Master Plan fell primarily to the city's Community Arts Commission which for several years has sponsored a variety of programs, projects, and policies to promote the arts and advance the work of the Plan. But the one area that has not seen any progress is public art.

Why? The simple answer is money. Isn't it always money? Isn't it frustrating and deflating when it all comes down to money? Sadly, the city has been unable to give the Commission a budget for commissioning or maintaining any public art projects. It's understandable. And in these tough times, local artists who are making their living off of their work cannot afford to donate pieces to town. They need to work.

Everyone once in a while a new idea comes up for a potential source of funding for a public art piece. Recently the City Council added public art to a very tentative list of potential ways to use some funds set aside for Community Redevelopment.

Sadly, some folks object to this use of funds calling public art a "frivolous concept." I can't call any project that could potentially employ a Sierra Madrean in their chosen profession and help enhance our town "frivolous." Sure times are tough and money is tight.  It is tight for artists too who need to work.

Some folks also like to kick around the idea of making people pay to use the Library because they think it isn't really essential. I think we covered my objections to that , but the same principle applies. Library's are a part of the public commons as well. They make us better. Art makes us better. It teaches. It bonds us together. It creates controversy. And it puts people to work.

Sierra Madre is not a large town. We don't have a lot of spaces suitable for a public art project or two. But surely we could come up with something. I just can't decide though what I think it should be. Murals on the sides of buildings modeled on the great mural program up in Eureka, CA. Sculptures in parks and maybe in Kersting Court like the program out in Palm Springs that attracts visitors just to see these pieces. A fountain. A garden. A storefront gallery.

I'm open to suggestions.

Alison Kalmus February 13, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Oh, Erica... well written! Maybe, maybe citizens will come to realize the heart of a community, socially, educationally and economically is its Art. As we see failing academic scores, lowering social intelligences, focus and creative meditation skills disappearing, and ingenuity/innovation decreasing (if you can't imagine, how can you create?) I hope the dots will be connected, and our citizenry finally wakes up to the support of public art in our communities!
Ed February 13, 2011 at 07:29 PM
Since AOL/Patch is sitting on around $2 billion or so these days, perhaps they could cough up a couple grand and subsidize art in Sierra Madre? Certainly would be far more positive news than the guilt tripping of tax payers we're reading here. What's next, Exxon-Mobil is going to scold us for not growing enough mums?
Erica Blodgett February 13, 2011 at 11:56 PM
Thanks, Alison. I'd love to talk to you about what Southern California Lyric Theater is up to these days. And Ed - thanks for reading!
Patrick February 14, 2011 at 03:56 AM
Ed, why so grumpy? You seem to enjoy reading the patch, for free. Have you bought any local art lately?
Ed February 14, 2011 at 05:47 AM
Is it an obligation?
Deborah Neely February 14, 2011 at 05:21 PM
Obligation? “The arts are an essential element of education, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic…music, dance, painting, and theater are all keys that unlock profound human understanding and accomplishment.” – –William Bennett, Former US Secretary of Education
Ed February 14, 2011 at 06:01 PM
But isn't that the problem? The public schools no longer teach what Bennett advocates because in California tax money goes to special interests such as those who abscond with out tax money through organizations like the CRA. Which is where you expect to get $20,000 to hang up pictures downtown. I agree with Jerry Brown, the $5.7 billion must be taken back and given to our schools so they can have things like an arts curriculum. Rather than firing teachers let's make it possible to hire some. That is far more important. Bring art back to the public schools. Stop wasteful CRA spending.
Dixie Coutant February 15, 2011 at 05:59 AM
Thanks for another good column, Erica. I just thought of another nice art work in a public spot - the Whalen fountain in the library garden. Oh, and the Sierra Madre sign at the east end of Sierra Madre Blvd. and the student artwork in the sidewalk downtown. I enjoy art in public spaces, and I believe it should come from the people of this town, not be commissioned and plopped down somewhere just so we can say, "Look here, we have public art." There are so many exceptionally talented artists in town, it certainly would enhance our town if we could have some of their work to enjoy everyday.
Laine Scheliga February 15, 2011 at 02:05 PM
I enjoy the vintage photos, like the ones outside the drugstore on Baldwin, that document the history of Sierra Madre. Sure, it's only a couple of big photos, but this kind of creative endeavor wasn't commissioned by anybody, it's a simple idea that provides a great look into the town's past, and it improves the promenade experience. Art shouldn't be about money, it's about people and the honest, quiet, and creative interaction with one another. Art is everywhere. This notion that it's important to throw gigantic bags of money around to harvest art or teach our kids is the most uncreative solution there is, and another example of the arrogant extravagance and diminishing values that put our country deep into the hole we're in today.
Dixie Coutant February 15, 2011 at 11:54 PM
You are so right.... what says,"You're in Sierra Madre now" better than the flamingos at the corner of Mountain Trail and Sierra Madre Blvd.? No public money there, but thanks to Robert's artistic flair, but we've enjoyed them for years.
Alison Kalmus February 16, 2011 at 04:02 PM
SCLT has worked hard to try to put up "The Tempest" for the Free Shakespeare in the Park's 6th Season. With funding drying up, though, it doesn't seem possible. City has tried very hard to facilitate this, so I can't fault them for not trying. On a more positive note, SCLT will be putting up the award winning Fairytales and Fantasy VI for the free summer concert in the Park series (premiering some original music from a local composer written for the Tempest) . I will be teaching an acting workshop at the S.M. YAC starting in April per the City's request. Cost will be minimal for the students, due to a funding grant. Always love to discuss the company and its mission, accomplishments (especially educationally) and plans.

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