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Temporary art exhibits will continue on city hall front lawn

By SARA HALL

The rotating, temporary art exhibition on the front lawn of city hall will continue for another three years following a decision this week, although some commissioners requested that the art be more “challenging.”

The Laguna Beach Planning Commission voted 4-0 (Commissioner Susan Whitin was absent) on Wednesday (May 18) to approve a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) and a Coastal Development Permit to allow temporary art installations on the city hall front lawn for a three-year period. 

The commission previously authorized a temporary art program at this location in January 2019, explained Planning Technician Garrett Wank. The recent application is identical to the previously approved program, he noted. Based on the success of the prior TUP, staff is requesting a new term. 

Commissioner Steve Kellenberg noted that he’s really enjoyed the exhibits in the past. He was excited when the program started and a bit surprised it took so long for an idea like this to get going.

“We are an art community and any way we can manifest art in any dimension in the community, ongoingly, just reinforces the fundamental heart and soul of the community,” Kellenberg said. 

“It’s a great program,” agreed Commission Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin. “To be able to have some rotating different types of artwork in front of city hall and also in Heisler Park, is an interesting thing.” 

It allows the exhibit to “stretch out” since they aren’t permanent installations and allow a broader range of subject matter, materials and style to be displayed, even if it’s controversial, he noted. 

“I would like to see, personally, some more challenging work being put out there instead of things that are, by and large, kind of decorative. They’re beautiful and interesting, but, I think, because it’s temporary we should be able to open the door to work that is a little more challenging to the public,” Dubin said. “Since we are an art community, we should be able to handle that.”

Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl commented that some pieces have been challenging to the community. She noted that they received national press coverage for one installation and some people even dressed up as the art for Halloween. While not specifically naming the artwork, the most controversial and engaging exhibit was “The Caretakers” by artist Mark Jenkins and collaborator Sandra Fernandez. The installation displayed human figures in hoodies performing a variety of tasks on the lawn of city hall during a few months of fall 2019.

Temporary art exhibits Caretakers

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The controversial “The Caretakers” installation by artist Mark Jenkins and collaborator Sandra Fernandez on the lawn at city hall in fall 2019 

“The temporary art installation program would reinforce the city’s image as a destination for the arts and enliven the area, which is otherwise defined by its cluster of civic buildings and other public-serving facilities,” the staff report reads. 

The approximately 480-square-foot grass lawn would accommodate a variety of temporary installations ranging from one week to six months in duration, with a majority being for a three-month period, Wank said. 

Each individual piece would be reviewed and approved by the City Council or the Temporary Public Art Review Panel, which consists of individuals representing the arts and planning commissions and several city departments. 

The lawn would be restored to its preexisting condition as necessary at the conclusion of each installation, Wank confirmed.

It’s been a good location for public sculptures, Poeschl noted. 

“The Arts Commission, through its budget of the Laguna Beach Tourism Marketing District, as well as private donations, has funded and facilitated seven exhibitions, by both local and internationally respected artists,” she wrote in a memo with the staff report. 

So far, all installations have been funded through the Arts Commission budget, Poeschl said at the meeting. They then go to council for authorization of the funds for temporary installation, she said. 

The arts budget comes from the Transient Occupancy Tax, Poeschl explained.

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“So we work a year behind,” after the TOT is calculated, she noted, “so, obviously, we did not do very well with our funding over the last couple of years. So we’re starting to rebuild the program again and really hope to bring additional diversity to the seven installations that we were able to present outside city hall.”

The current TUP is set to expire so this week’s action will continue the program for another three years.

Answering a commission question, Poeschl said they have discussed with police the possibility of installing a security camera at the location. Although vandalism or theft are very rare with the installations there, she noted, two small figures were stolen from Isaac Cordal’s “Waiting for Climate Change” installation in 2020.

Temporary art exhibits Waiting for Climate Change

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Submitted photo

One of two sculptures stolen from Isaac Cordal’s “Waiting for Climate Change” installation in 2020

In reviewing works for the site, the Arts Commission considers a variety of criteria, including the quality and appropriateness of the artwork in form and realization, which was discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.

It seems very subjective, noted Dubin, who said his art has been rejected from the program a couple of times apparently because of the inappropriateness of the work.

“Art is everything and to have some kind of subjective that governs what can happen in front of city hall seems sort of diametrically opposed to what art is about,” Dubin said. 

Curious as to who makes that determination, he asked about the process. 

That’s a complicated criterion, Poeschl responded, and it’s been discussed at length about what it actually means. 

It needs to be appropriate and representative of the city, not hateful or offensive to any one group, she explained. 

“Those are things that the Arts Commission, as a whole, look at to ensure that we are representing the qualities of the community and the qualities of the City of Laguna Beach as an organization,” she explained. 

They do have to be careful about the appropriateness of the artwork by city hall, noted Commissioner Ken Sadler. 

“It is walking a bit of a fine line here in front of city hall,” he said. “We saw what happened regarding an art display at Wells Fargo that some people considered too controversial for that space.”

That criteria language is what’s currently in place, but they are hoping it will change and provide better guidance going forward as city staff and the Arts Commission are currently working with the Cultural Planning Group on updating the public art policy.

Policies regarding public art in Laguna Beach are currently under review for a much-needed update in an effort to fill in gaps and ambiguities in city code regarding public art, modernize regulations and better engage with the community. 

“We want to create a change in the whole public arts perspective,” Poeschl said. 

Commissioners should see some changes in that document that will help guide things in the future. 

“We need to have stronger language so that questions like this don’t come up and that we’re able to answer them very clearly and I hope this document will really help that,” Poeschl said. 

They hope to bring something to the Planning Commission for review by the end of summer, she added. 

Poeschl also confirmed that they are hoping to expand the program at Heisler Park. 

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.