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City Looking to Get Back Into the Mural Business with "Art Easements"

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Friday, November 21, 2008, at 11:35AM
mural in the arts district Ed Fuentes

This mural in the Arts District was commissioned by a production company for a soft-drink commercial.

Los Angeles' title of “Mural Capital of the World” was a moniker inspired by large-scale works created for the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival. But in the last two years, that title has been claimed, rightfully so, by Philadelphia's active and prolific community mural program.

Recent years here in L.A. have seen murals become more a topic for controversy than a source of pride. Murals on private property have gotten caught in the crossfire of the city's fight with billboard operators. A new proposal hopes to separate the two out and end crack downs on what should be welcomed additions to the visual landscape.

A new ordinance is being proposed to define murals painted with artistic intent as Fine Art Murals, not a “mural sign." Art works were classified under that term in 2007, effectively making it illegal for new works to be put up.

When Los Angeles first attempted to regulate commerical signage, it was ordered by a court to consider billboards as free speech, protected under the First Amendment. The city was put in a bind: no longer able to regulate based on content, murals had to be outlawed or all signage had to be allowed.

The new proposal would create a mechanism for property owners to donate an exterior space on their structure to the city via an "Art Easement." The city would then have the ability to allow the work as public art, with the city acting as a patron of the arts rather than as a regulator.

A new "Mural Approval Process" would create an evaluation system for murals. They would be judged on a number of criteria, including artistic quality, originality, content, scale and community support. Cultural Affairs would likely monitor the process and make a final judgement.

One can certainly foresee problems when deciding what is a Fine Art Mural. By aggressive production, the graffiti aesthetic has dominated recent mural work and even when completed with the consent of a property owner has often invited little community input.

Complicating matters even more, if a graf-style work carries abstract typography, authorities may interpret it as a gang influence and be less inclined to consider it as art.

Los Angeles is basing this recommendation on a mural program in Portland, Oregon, who also was ordered by a court protecting the free speech rights of billboard and outdoor advertising.

If the “Portland process” is enacted and created with the mural community at large, Los Angeles can gain a foothold on the form of public art that in many ways it made contemporary.

The recommendation was scheduled to be heard Wednesday by PLUM and Arts Parks Health and Aging Committee via a report by the Department of City Planning. The meeting was canceled due to an extended closed council session, but will be rescheduled.

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