Cultural Patrimony: Learning to Save Los Angeles’ Mural Legacy
By 2008, the world-renowned murals of Los Angeles metaphorically had a nail in their coffin; they had become a faded memory in the consciousness of the city. This amnesia of preserving the cultural patrimony of LA was a social epidemic that I later learned was happening to public art in many cities across the country. Mural after mural along the LA’s freeways and neighborhoods were disappeared and abandoned by the city – scenes so appalling that I set out to find organizations that could shed some light on the issue. Little did I know this small but significant action would set the stage for the next phase of my career in the arts.
To ease my frustration on the issue, I googled, ‘Los Angeles murals’ and found the ‘Social and Public Art Resource Center’, better known as SPARC. The visual imagery on the website, rich with social and politically spirited murals and the history of the organization as a leader in public art practice, grabbed my soul and moved me to request an informational interview. By the following week, I would meet my future colleague and mentor, Debra J.T. Padilla, Executive Director of SPARC.
When I arrived I learned that SPARC’s Co-Founder/Artistic Director, Judy Baca, and her team of ‘artivists’ were already leading a campaign called, ‘Save LA Murals’. The campaign was a response to LA’s then ‘mural ban’ and the destruction of our city’s mural legacy by vandals and neglect. In our informational interview, which led to me being hired as a full time staff member, Debra shared a kernel of wisdom that would define my approach to community engagement and my role as an emerging arts leader; she said, and I quote, “remember, history doesn’t begin when we walk through the door, rather, we are always walking into historical precedence”.
If I were to understand the significance of my initial inquiry into the blighted murals of LA, I would have to understand who created them, why, and most importantly, their power to transform the social fabric of our city. I would have to delve deep into the socio-political history of LA if I were to be an impactful contributor to the movement. By investigating the past, I learned that Los Angeles had a rich history of muralism dating back to 1932 in a mural entitled, America Tropical, by Mexican Muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros; his mural would inspire the California Chicano Mural Renaissance of the 1960s and 70s. Following that, it would inspire the Great Wall of Los Angeles and the hundreds of murals in the neighborhoods of LA. The spirit of the Los Angeles River combined with the contributions made by LA’s ethnic populations to the building of LA would reveal themselves through the mural tradition.
Today, nearly 6 years after my initial inquiry to SPARC and years of activism by our arts community, we are witnessing a ‘mural renaissance’ again in Los Angeles. The notorious ‘mural ban’ has been overturned and the right to artistic expression is in place through a ‘mural permitting’ process. The iconic 1984 Olympic freeway murals are being ‘excavated’ from layers of graffiti and SPARC’s ‘Save LA Murals’ campaign has evolved into an active ‘Mural Rescue Program’. As of this summer, the LA City Council has approved $750,000 to fund mural related preservation and production efforts as our policymakers recognize ‘Arts Day’ in LA. The Great Wall of Los Angeles, the mother of LA’s murals, has received funding from the NEA for the design of the 1960s segment and an entire neighborhood has been designated an ‘Arts District’. Dedicated ‘artivists’, policy makers and arts organizations had contributed to a shift in social and artistic policy that was unimaginable just a few years ago.
The lesson in this experience for me, and many others, was to never underestimate the power of historical precedence when advising policy, hence, “we are always walking into historical precedence”. To empower the movement, the ‘artivists’ embraced the impact of mural history that had preceded them. They shared a deep appreciation for the muralists who laid the foundation for the arts in LA. Had we not been able to articulate its significance to our policymakers, it’s possible that the pursuit for the freedom of artistic expression and its relevance for our city would have not been realized.
What’s next for Los Angeles and its public art programs? As our city reimagines itself for the 21st century, exciting projects are underway that engage the arts as a cornerstone for a vision of a more pedestrian and environmentally conscious city. For example, parts of the cemented Los Angeles River (the concreted artery of the city) will be returned to natural spaces with support of the Urban Waters Federal Project. This project aims to improve our urban waterways and promote economic and social benefits that include public art along our river. Other projects include the expansion of LA’s Metro subway system that will shift the way Angelinos travel and include opportunities for artists. The revitalization of Downtown LA, once a victim of expansive suburbanization, is now seeing a resurgence of life, historical preservation and public art. These are just a few of the ways that Angelinos are integrating the arts and social change. I have no doubt that as we move forward with transforming our great city, the need for artists and arts leaders will be essential for a healthy and thriving urban experience.
The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is hosted by Carnegie Mellon University.