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Santa Clarita debates art around the city

Posted: November 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Sculpture entitled "Western Tiger Swallowtail" on center median of Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus.

 

What makes good art and what makes that art fit into Santa Clarita?

Those are the questions facing members of the Santa Clarita City Council and the city’s Arts Commission who — following the council’s decision last week to table a planned vote on three public art pieces — are planning to sit down and hammer out a long-term vision for public art in the city.

The meeting will follow two other meetings earlier this year during which members of the City Council set aside recommendations from the Arts Commission regarding public art pieces.

Council members said constituents complained about some of the commission’s choices and added they may not adequately reflect the character or the history of Santa Clarita.

Arts Commission

Much like the city’s other commissions, the Arts Commission is an advisory body.

Formed in 2009 amid some controversy, it was charged with providing guidance and making recommendations to the City Council on issues pertaining to art.

But the city’s other commissions oversee more objective issues such as growth planning or parks development. Art is not so easily codified.

“One of the big challenges with public art is there is no Unified Development Code to tell you what it should be,” city Arts and Events Administrator Phil Lantis said with a laugh during a phone interview. “But that’s what makes it special and that’s what makes it unique.”

That’s also what makes it completely subjective: One person’s valued asset is another person’s eyesore.

Certainly city officials are not always in agreement on what looks best or fits best in Santa Clarita.

Artistic Differences

City Council members said earlier this year they were dissatisfied with the two finalists for the artwork that would accompany the under-construction Newhall roundabout, a sentiment that was shared by some members of the Arts Commission as well.

Council members said they received numerous public complaints on those finalists, one of which was planned for the middle of the roundabout being built in front of William S. Hart Park in Newhall.

The process for determining what, if anything, should go along with that project has since been re-opened and will likely be discussed at a council meeting later this month, Lantis said.

Artistic differences presented themselves again Tuesday night at the City Council meeting. Arts Commissioners saw their top choices for three public art pieces — one near the intersection of Newhall Ranch Road and Rye Canyon Road, another near the Magic Mountain Parkway off-ramp from Interstate 5, and the other at the Valencia Library — largely put aside by the council in favor of a sit-down meeting to discuss how to find artwork that more clearly invokes the history and culture of the Santa Clarita Valley.

But Councilman TimBen Boydston — who is also the executive and artistic director of the Canyon Theatre Guild — said the council should respect the commission’s recommendations.

“Apparently some of my fellow council people did not care for those selections so they decided to pull (the items),” Boydston said in a phone interview.

Councilwoman Laurene Weste said Thursday her issue is not so much with specific pieces of art recommended by the commission, but that long-term art installations need to be thought out.

“It’s always good to spend the time to think through things and really know where we’re going,” she said.

A meeting of the minds would allow a “big picture” approach to determining what fits with both the history and the future of the city, Weste said.

“I don’t think they’ve been given the opportunity to really look at that broad scope — where Santa Clarita was, where it is and where they want it to be in 40 and 50 years,” Weste said of the arts commissioners.

Councilwoman Marsha McLean said she has heard from members of the Arts Commission that they would welcome additional feedback.

“Based on previous comments from the arts commission(ers) themselves regarding some of the major art projects, they stated they would actually like more direction from City Council as to what we might see as the character of our city that we would like to have brought forth in our public art,” she said Tuesday.

Susan Shapiro, chairwoman the Arts Commission, said as much at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think it’s important for the commission to know very clearly what the council would like us to do, and in that sense certainly we need direction,” she said. “But once there is a process, then in specific cases we’d like to be able to have that process work.”

Shapiro said she also supports having a master plan to provide guidance on public artwork in the city.

But to Boydston, the larger issue is that the City Council has not given commissioners enough power to operate effectively.

“This is, I think, an example of what happens when a government gets more and more powerful and the power goes into fewer and fewer hands,” he said. “Basically we say the Arts Commission is supposed to do this sort of thing but then we decide that we have better taste or our opinion counts more.

“If that’s true, then what do you have an Arts Commission for?” he asked.

The process

Goals of the Arts Commission include advancing and supporting arts and culture, education and promoting economic development through the arts.

The process for a public art piece typically entails pulling together a committee, made up of at least one commissioner and usually other stakeholders, to draft a look at what kind of artwork should go at a specific place, according to Lantis.

Typically 50 or more artists will throw their hats into the ring for a specific project, but only a select few are given the go-ahead, Lantis said.

Arts commissioners then narrow the proposals and forward their choices to the city council for review.

Because the Arts Commission is relatively new the process is still being worked out, Lantis said.

But despite potential differences in opinion, Lantis said he thinks all city officials and representatives are on the same page in the larger sense.

“At the end of the day we want to make sure we’re providing great public art for the community,” he said.

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