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Monday, November 24, 2014

Open Discussion: Getting the mural ordinance right

Photo by Ian Robertson

Submitted by Bill Lasarow, Judithe Hernández, and Isabel Rojas-Williams
Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

Since 2002, the unintended consequence of an existing ordinance, enacted to curb the proliferation of commercial signage, effectively prohibited the painting of murals on private property. When it was announced a year ago that the ordinance would be rewritten, artists had reason to be hopeful. For nearly a year, the artist community of Los Angeles has spent considerable energy providing input to the crafting of an ordinance that would reform the disastrous 2002 law. In March, Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA) staff and others directly involved in the ordinance review process received a draft of the new ordinance that appeared poised for presentation to the City Council for passage.

Many among us were shocked and disappointed that the ordinance draft of June 28th, to be presented to the City Planning Commission for approval, omitted significant changes that those of us giving input had communicated to the Department of City Planning staff at numerous public forums. Unable to support this inadequate version of the new ordinance, MCLA along with many artists and local arts organizations testified that the proposed revisions and additions be rejected by the Commission. In response to the concerns raised at the ordinance meeting of July 12th, the Planning Commission rejected the draft and scheduled a new hearing for September 13th, 2012. MCLA is hopeful that it will able to support approval at that time based on correcting the following points.

Original Art Mural vs. Public Art Installation?

In the opinion of MCLA, the definition of “Original Art Mural” in the new ordinance draft should not be defined and distinguished on the basis of the medium an artist chooses to employ, but rather by the process of installation it requires, and whether the form of installation will require inspection by the city’s Department of Building and Safety. In the current version, this important distinction is made in the body of the draft, but not reflected in the definition, thus confusing the issue and raising objections from many artists. The distinction between “Original Mural Art” and “Public Art Installation” should be made as a consequence of an artwork requiring a safety inspection because it includes elements or is placed on a substrate that must be attached to a structure. Yet, rather than adopting language regarding public safety, the new draft makes a distinction based on artistic medium without regard for the installation process.

A hand-painted artwork applied directly to the surface of a wall does not require a safety inspection because it poses no risk of public safety after its completion. However, other processes do. Digitally printed images, for example, produced by printing the image on substrates ranging from light pliable materials to rigid constructions of wood or metal, must be attached to a wall somehow. The definition should then be centered upon what seems obvious: is a safety inspection required? MCLA firmly believes that the privilege of defining what art is and what it is not, resides with artists, not with municipalities and commissions.

That said, we would also respectfully remind the public art community that even if all public art mediums under the ordinance — traditional or innovative, familiar or controversial — are subject to guidelines intended to insure public safety, the regulations should not be construed as an attempt to prohibit them. If additional time and cost is involved because an artwork includes sculptural elements, is painted or printed on a material that will be bolted to a wall, or in any way introduces a safety concern that requires city inspection, a higher permit fee should be imposed to cover the cost of inspection and to track compliance.

Clarifying this distinction in terms of safety rather than media will unleash, with discipline, the exercise of creative freedom and innovation; not just aesthetically but also in the use of media.

Residential Unit Restriction

The stipulation in Section 6, paragraph B (8) of the ordinance restricts artworks from being placed on residential buildings with “fewer than five dwelling units” is unwise and inappropriate. Inasmuch as council districts have the ability to impose limits that best reflect the wishes of their neighborhoods and constituencies, there is no need for this provision in the ordinance, except to say that it should be decided by each council district.

A Comment on the Fees

Finally, a number of artists have raised objections to the permit fee stipulations of Section 22.116. Some artists have balked at the prospect of any fee, and some may truly be unable to bear even a rather minimal cost burden. However, by the standards of other fees imposed to conduct business in Los Angeles, the fee structure proposed is relatively modest and basically reasonable. If the fees can be structured to increase the fee on permits for artworks that require safety inspections, the fee on those that do not require inspection should be lowered.

A Suggestion

Building owners are not public art experts. Those willing to lend their walls for public art should be thanked by the city for their civic participation in this process. Through the fees collected, some portion should go to making available, via mail or email, information designed to educate building owners on the rights of artists and their own rights and responsibilities as building owners. The issue of “de-registration” of a mural is of particular concern to artists. Providing this information would make clear the rights and responsibilities that a change of ownership bestows and would define the “de-registration” rights of a new owner. A summary of this information could help avoid the destruction of art by making clear that the right of de-registration does not mean that a mural may be altered or destroyed in contravention of the rights of the artist, which are protected under both State (the California Art Preservation Act) and Federal (the Visual Artist Rights Act) law.

This new ordinance is important. Not because it will allow anyone who wants to call themselves an artist to do anything they want, but because it will foster a revitalized creativity in our public space. Thanks to the last ten years we KNOW the consequence of repressing that energy and activity. The gentle, yet certain regulatory hand extended by this new ordinance, which we fully expect to see appropriately corrected and recommended to City Council for passage in September, will make for a vastly improved and enriched visual environment in the City of Los Angeles.

Bill Lasarow is President and Co-Founder of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Lasarow is the publisher of the long time art digest to Southern California, ArtScene, as well as the online art portal Visual Art Source (visualartsource.com). 

Judithe Hernández, member of the Board of Directors of MCLA, is an artist of international recognition whose career began in Los Angeles as a muralist and member of the celebrated Chicano artist collective Los Four. 

Isabel Rojas-Williams, art historian and MCLA’s Executive Director.

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