Local

SLO to expand art program that puts mini murals on utility boxes

Justin Johnson paints a utility box in September 2010 near Chorro and Higuera streets in downtown San Luis Obispo. The acrylic work is called “Topagraphical Abstract.” The utility box is one of 17 boxes originally painted in 2010.
Justin Johnson paints a utility box in September 2010 near Chorro and Higuera streets in downtown San Luis Obispo. The acrylic work is called “Topagraphical Abstract.” The utility box is one of 17 boxes originally painted in 2010. David Middlecamp

San Luis Obispo’s Utility Box Art Program has been so widely popular that it will now officially be an ongoing public art project.

The San Luis Obispo City Council unanimously approved a Parks and Recreation Department proposal Tuesday to update its public art policies and establish guidelines to expand the number of painted utility boxes — currently in and around downtown — to city-owned boxes throughout the city.

Under the new rules, changes to a few existing boxes and the painting of new murals will occur in phases over the next three to seven years; no changes to existing boxes will happen until 2019, Recreation and Public Art Manager Melissa Mudgett told the council.

Painting of the next round of boxes is expected to begin in the late fall or winter.

The murals were first painted in 2010 as a beautification pilot project at high-visibility intersections in the downtown core. With the support of Arts Obispo and the Downtown Association, the project was expanded to 17 more boxes in 2012, for a current total of 33 painted boxes downtown.

There are 64 city-owned utility and traffic control boxes throughout the city.

In March 2015, the City Council approved updates to the city’s art policy to make the pilot program an ongoing temporary public art project within the city’s Public Art Program and approved funding for a 2016 Box Art Repainting Project. In February, the council formed a Box Art stakeholders group of city staff, local artists and representatives from community groups who drafted an updated arts policy.

Under the new policy, an artist’s work will remain on a downtown box for three to five years, depending on funding. Boxes outside downtown will be repainted about every 10 years.

In expanding the project, the city will use community input, vandalism issues and proximity to other art to determine which boxes will get the next treatment. A “vote for the box” system, in which residents vote for their favorite location for a new mural on the city website, will go online this week. The city will also explore opportunities to expand the murals to privately owned boxes.

Finally, in what Mudgett called the “pièce de résistance,” the city will preserve the artwork in electronic and print format on the city website in books, postcards and even blank coloring sheets for residents to color in their own versions of the artists’ work.

Once all city-owned boxes are painted, the program will focus on repainting the older, original boxes in the downtown core as early as 2019 or as late as 2023.

The city accepted 50 design applications from artists in February for the next round of artwork. An art jury is expected to be formed in August to review the proposals and make suggestions to the appropriate advisory bodies in September. About 10 designs will be accepted this round.

In October, the City Council will have the final vote on design and location prior to painting. Depending on funding, the city plans to begin accepting designs for the next round in about a year, Mudgett said.

Funding for the project comes from development in lieu fees and repainting, so maintenance depends on funding in any given year. The upcoming 2016 Box Art painting project, artist stipends, marketing and maintenance will come to about $48,000 from the Public Art Fund approved by the council last year.

A San Luis Obispo city official and an artist discuss the city's Box Art Program in February 2016.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

  Comments