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A glimpse behind the scenes of Laguna’s public art program

By MARRIE STONE

Last Saturday evening, the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) hosted a panel aimed at educating the community about Laguna’s public art program, from its more than 100 pieces of permanently installed art to its many temporary exhibits, installations, performances and experiences. Some works are well known – Heisler Park alone boasts 17 pieces – but there are dozens of hidden gems tucked around town. And the backstories behind some work might surprise you. 

I moderated the discussion between the Chair of the Arts Commission Adam Schwerner, Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl and sculptors Gerard Basil Stripling and Casey Parlette. In the process I, along with the roughly two dozen members of the audience, learned how the public art in our town is chosen and funded, and the various arts programs and municipal requirements that bring art to Laguna Beach. Panelists also shared the difficult balancing act they navigate to bring art that’s aesthetically pleasing, culturally interesting and enduring. They also shared a few of their favorite pieces and how one controversial installation won over the crowd.

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(L-R) Sculpture artists Gerard Basil Stripling and Casey Parlette, Moderator Marrie Stone, Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl and Chair of the Arts Commission Adam Schwerner

Art is one of those seemingly benign topics that can sneak up and surprise you. If you wonder what could be controversial about a topic like art, you haven’t spent much time in Laguna Beach. Who arbitrates art? Whose voices get amplified? What considerations go into these difficult decisions? Removing some of the mystery behind the process is important and may give the community an even deeper appreciation for the art that surrounds them every day. 

Public arts programming and funding

The Laguna Beach Arts Commission is comprised of seven members (all some form of artists themselves) who meet twice a month. The commission is responsible for making recommendations to the Planning Commission and City Council on public art. Those recommendations can arise from several different channels: “Public Art and Murals,” “Art in Public Places,” temporary art exhibitions, city improvements and private donations or commissions. 

“‘Art in Public Places’ is a program written into our municipal code,” Poeschl explained. “Developers are required to install public artwork to the value of 1% of their construction valuation to ensure we add to the diversity of our public art collection. Developers select the work themselves and come before the Arts Commission – and eventually the City Council – to satisfy the Art in Public Places ordinance.” 

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Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl explains the process and funding behind the various public arts programs in Laguna Beach. Poeschl has served in her role since 1997. 

The ordinance, adopted in 1986, applies to commercial, industrial or residential developments exceeding $225,000 and requires developers to allocate at least 1% of total building construction valuation. The artwork must be visible to the public from the street. All artworks are privately owned and intended to enhance property values. 

City-owned art relies on a different funding source – the Transient Occupancy Tax (commonly known as the “bed tax”). That tax is levied on local motels and hotels and passed along to their guests. The tax has incrementally increased over the years, resulting in a nice windfall to our city’s arts programming. Of course, the pandemic had a severe impact on those funds, but finances have slowly turned around. A portion of these proceeds fund public art installations as well as many temporary art exhibits. 

“During the pandemic, our budget went from $245,000 to $103,000,” Poeschl said. “We looked at programming during COVID that people could experience in a safe manner.” 

One of those programs is still going on through the end of June. Composer Ellen Reid’s Soundwalk in Heisler Park allows visitors to download an app (click here) on their phone and experience Reid’s acoustic vision. The GPS-guided tour changes the music as the visitor explores different paths in the park. “We spent our funds ensuring artists were able to work, but also ensuring the community still had opportunities to experience art,” said Poeschl.

Temporary exhibits can last one afternoon or two years. “Most exhibits commonly appear for a few months at various public places – most often Heisler Park or outside City Hall,” said Poeschl. “The hotel tax allows us to diversify the public art collection with temporary pieces. We don’t own them. We rent them and then return them to the artist.”

Temporary art also includes musical performances (like concerts in the park), children’s shows (like the upcoming Luce Puppet Show and Circus Bella) and short-term interactive art demonstrations (like chalk artist David Zinn). 

The Arts Commission sometimes uses funds to collaborate on new city improvements. “The most recent example would be the beautiful tile mural at the restrooms at Main Beach Park,” said Poeschl. “There was an opportunity to add an art piece to that improvement. We had an artist from Chicago coming during COVID and Gerard [Stripling] assisted with the installation.” 

Finally, private citizens sometimes donate or fund public art, but that process still goes through the city for approvals. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Sculptor Casey Parlette’s 2017 piece “Tidepool Kraken” (located near Diver’s Cove in Heisler Park) was funded by a private donor

“The important thing to remember is the public art is accessible to everybody all the time,” said Poeschl. “There isn’t a choice for certain people but to walk past a piece. When a piece comes before the Arts Commission for consideration, they have to think about the aesthetics as well as public safety.”

The selection process

In addition to the seven members of the Arts Commission (“who are not at all scary,” added Poeschl), there are five members on the Planning Commission and five members on City Council. The public is invited to attend the Arts Commission meetings, ask questions and express their views. “That’s probably one of the hardest parts for the artists when it comes to those meetings,” said Poeschl. “Hearing from the public.”

Stripling, who has four pieces of permanent public art installed in town and created two temporary installations, said, “For the most part, the process hasn’t been too bad for me. I’ve received some important questions, mostly ensuring the piece I’m building doesn’t become a deathtrap for the public.”

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Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling has four permanent pieces installed in Laguna Beach (the latter two in collaboration with the late Michele Taylor). “Repose” (2003), “Memento” (2004), “Moving Forward” (2009) and “Eternal Legacy” (2014). He’s also shown two temporary exhibits in front of City Hall (“Anastasis” and “Loveseat Conversation”).   

One member of the Arts Commission, Donna Ballard, is an architect. “Having an architect is important because she understands the building materials,” said Schwerner. “We’ve had permanent collection pieces that were built in ways that, in the long term, didn’t sustain. So having an architect is very helpful. You also have to understand how to work in an environment like Laguna. The harsh salt air creates tough conditions. That’s another thing we’re thinking about.”

As for choices of aesthetics, the panelists all agreed – it’s impossible to please everyone and, ultimately, decisions must be made. “Art speaks to everybody in different ways,” Stripling said. “Different pieces connect with different people. You’ll never have 100% agreement on your work. Instead, it’s about getting the work out there and allowing a story to be told.”

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Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling’s “Repose” (2003) is located in Treasure Island Park at the Montage Hotel.

The fringe benefits of temporary art

Temporary art exhibits allow much wider latitude when it comes to selecting art that’s challenging, controversial or educational. “Having a piece of work permanently installed can be more complicated if it’s work that engenders strong opinions,” said Poeschl, adding that social commentary or reactionary art is best left in the domain of temporary installations.

“From my point of view and experience, it’s all about pacing,” said Poeschl. “If you constantly shock the community, then the element of shock goes away. If you give your audience time to breathe, you can build up to what comes next. You need that balance when you really want to shock. No one will know it’s coming.” 

One memorable example was “The Caretakers,” a 2019 temporary installation by Mark Jenkins. Five life-sized men wearing grey hoodies stood on the lawn in front of City Hall. One vacuumed the grass while another played a game of horseshoes and a third took aim at another’s head with a toilet plunger acting as an arrow. “People actually called the cops,” said Schwerner. “Initially, people were sort of angst-ridden about it, but by the end – around Halloween – people were dressing up in hoods as costumes. That was a salute to the fact that art can be transformative as people become used to it or engage in conversation with it.”

Schwerner also pointed to a 2020 installation by Spanish artist Isaac Cordal entitled, “Waiting for Climate Change.” Ten miniature sculptures, including a man wearing a pink bathrobe and another in a rubber ducky floatie stood atop 10 pedestals. Nothing came across as overtly didactic. “Did you know he was making a comment about climate change?” Schwerner asked. “It was lovely and charming, and we were able to bring his message without being heavy-handed. People can either accept that message or not.”

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Chair of the Arts Commission (and horticulture artist), Adam Schwerner, reflects on the many successful pieces of public art he’s overseen – both permanent and temporary.

Artists shared their favorite art

I asked each panelist to highlight one piece of art in town that’s either their favorite, or perhaps doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Here are their responses, edited for brevity and clarity:

Schwerner: There is a piece called “Lunar Tides,” created by Scott and Naomi Schoenherr, that is on the stage floor of the amphitheater in Heisler Park. I like the fact that it is integrated into that very large space. We were able to support the artists and add to the beauty of that stage with their work. 

More generally, though, there are very few cities in America that have a public collection like this one. The entirety of the collection – and being able to see the degree to which this city cares about art – that’s my favorite thing.

Poeschl: For me, it’s meaningful to have worked with the police, fire and marine safety departments in creating and working with the artists who created those memorials that speak to larger events. 

But someone whose spirit will not be forgotten is Cheryl Ekstrom and her “Deer Warrior” statue in Jahraus Park. Originally, there were 16 or 18 warriors on display in this beautiful setting in a county park. What people might not know is that Cheryl’s brother was murdered. When she came out of having heard the news, there was a deer in her garden. His horns had been broken off, but she felt she could stand there with this deer and feel like she was being protected. So she created an army of them so people could stand and face their fears. Eventually, Cheryl offered to donate “Deer Warrior” to the city’s collection. So that piece is special, as was Cheryl as an artist. 

Parlette: When I was lifeguarding, from Lifeguard Headquarters, I could see Terry Thornsley’s piece (“Grace”) right out the window. He passed away, but Terry was generous with his advice when I was starting out. “Grace” is a modified relief sculpture on the wall near Lifeguard Headquarters (and near the restrooms). It’s hiding in plain sight, but the details he incorporated and the techniques he used to pull off a piece like that – I respected Terry and what went into creating that piece. 

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Sculptor Casey Parlette’s third piece of public art will be installed this summer at Dornin Investments on PCH. In addition, Parlette has created pieces for Mission Hospital, a large installation for a Marriott Garden resort in Anaheim and a number of other commissioned pieces for other businesses outside Laguna.

Stripling: When Siân mentioned “Deer Warrior,” I realized that was the first public sculpture I saw when I moved here in 2000. Then it was in front of Bank of America. And I always felt that was such a powerful figure in the way that it was sculpted. That’s my favorite, too. Cheryl was a unique powerhouse. She was probably only 5’1”, but she carried so much spirit that she walked like she was six feet tall. And she was such a great artist, and some of her other pieces are wonderful as well. She’s definitely missed. 

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In attendance was local artist Jorg Dubin, who has numerous works of public art in town, including “Semper Memento” (2011), a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001

For those wishing a written catalog detailing all the public art in town, a digital brochure is available by clicking here. The catalog is in the process of being updated, and the city is considering making tours available as a downloadable app. Catalogs are also available at the Community and Senior Center, or at Visit Laguna Beach downtown.