Wednesday, February 4, 2009

ART—For the Price of a Stamp

This past Saturday evening another extraordinary educational event occurred in Cal State LA’s College of Arts and Letters. Over 600 people turned out to discuss a pressing topic. Not the financial meltdown, the war in Iraq, or Sunday’s Super Bowl. Students, faculty, artists, civil servants, and the community came in great numbers to discuss public art in Los Angeles.
The occasion? Under the direction of Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, students of the Department of Art at Cal State L.A. have mounted an exhibition “Walls of Passion: Murals of Los Angeles,” the beginning of a multi-year project to document approximately 500 large scale murals on public view in the vast Los Angeles region. Students of the Art History Society worked to describe the history of the murals, interviewing artists whenever possible, and assessing the social and aesthetic contexts as well as the contribution of the work to the surrounding communities. Students engaged in this project lived up to its title becoming passionately involved in cataloging and even preserving the murals.

The result? A wonderful photo and slide exhibition featuring a variety of LA murals and a lively public debate especially about tagging and graffiti as pubic art or vandalism. Several prominent Los Angeles artists (e.g., Cal State LA alum Kent Twitchell, Paul Botello, Man One) as well as professors, students, and arts administrators led the discussion. They want to provide young people with art education and the tools to create public and individual artistic expression perhaps mitigating the kind of vandalism that erupts when no other means of self-expression seems possible.

The “take away” from an evening of art and debate? Cal State LA ‘s College of Arts and Letters stands reinforced in its vision to support the communities we serve through production, exhibition, and discussion of art. Art students photographed and documented murals working directly with the public, and it looks like “Walls of Passion” may become a traveling exhibit. Students in Art Education prepared lesson plans for school teachers about the murals and perhaps many more young people will have a chance to reflect on the public art that surrounds them. We even created an online map of the murals documented to date so exhibition viewers can find their favorite pieces.

Finally, we found that art matters to Angelenos but it’s not always clear what we can do to support them, particularly in the case of public art created by community artists. Here’s a brief list of efforts suggested by the discussion:

  • Act at the national level: Perhaps you’ve noticed that the federal stimulus package includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and that this has raised cries of outrage from some? Perhaps you haven’t calculated that $50 million equals 16 cents per person in the U.S. or a little more than 1/3 of a postage stamp. Why not call your Congressional and Senate offices asking for $150 million instead of $50 million? Can’t we afford, one average, one postage stamp for art?
  • Act locally: LA permits billboards (or they go up illegally) where pubic art might flourish. Can we engage youth in public, travelling art on garbage cans and trucks? How can we train artists and fund more public arts while encouraging more private as well as public commissions? Contact your city and county representatives with your ideas; locate and support your neighborhood arts council; encourage businesses to commission both small and large art projects.
  • Fund arts education: School districts suffer from lack of funding and too often cancel arts education in favor of standardized testing. As Dean of Arts and Letters at Cal State LA, I’ve worked with faculty and staff to ensure that our programs are accessible to K-12 schools but too often schools don’t have money to bus students to campus even to free events. Contact your schools to insist that art matters. When you can donate to the arts at the K-12 or college level and foster partnerships in arts education.
  • Join an arts organization: From MOCA to molaa, museums make art accessible. So do symphonies, operas, dance and theatre companies. Now more than ever membership is critical to keep the arts alive.
  • Become our audience: New Yorker magazine just published an article on low-cost and free performances; the writer attended 10 events in 7 days for $81. Free or low-cost art is also possible in Los Angeles. In addition to viewing murals you can visit free or low-cost museums and performances at Cal State LA and other local colleges, at museums, churches, and local government halls.
As last Saturday’s exhibition and discussion demonstrates public art can serve as markers of history, identity, and community pride. Let’s work to create more art that serves greater Los Angeles.

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