On July 16, the City Council tentatively adopted a new monuments policy, urged by Mayor Heidi Harmon, that would prohibit any public art project on city property that honors people. No recognizable individuals could be represented in public art projects, only “ideas and ideals.”
The clear intent of the mayor was to block one particular project, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Legacy Grove. Facing the open hostility of the mayor toward this project and its artist, Paula Zima, the volunteer committee that has spearheaded this project for over three years took action in February to suspend our application.
We strongly urge the City Council and staff to avoid any further comment on our project until they have completed their review of the city’s public art policies. And in return, we are withholding any announcement about further changes to our project, including options as to the specific site for this project or even whether to pursue it within the city of San Luis Obispo.
We also urge the City Council to think carefully and deeply before amending our public art policies to prohibit artwork that includes recognizable people. Our existing policies were established over decades of open deliberation and collaboration between artists and art advocates throughout the city.
The result is that our public art program has evolved to resemble an ongoing “potluck” of art, open to the entire community, revealing our creativity and our diversity in all its wonderful (and sometimes awful) dimensions. The idea of a potluck is that you can partake of what you like and ignore those few items that are, shall we say, “not to our taste.”
By prohibiting any public art that is intended to honor people, the council wants to impose a single recipe for this potluck: Sure, bring anything to the table, as long as it’s a council-approved porridge.
We are concerned that in advancing this new policy, the mayor has made a monumental mistake.
The City Council, should it approve this policy, would be complicit in an Orwellian effort to cleanse our landscape of any public art project that recognizes and honors important people for their contributions to history. How can one teach about ideas, ideals, movements and historic shifts in consciousness without reference to the people who gave life to those beliefs?
The council has compounded this mistake by complaining of the costs of maintaining such works of art. In this baleful lament, it appears they have not even read the city’s 2016 Public Art Master Plan.
That plan includes specific strategies to assure that funds are available to sustain the maintenance costs for any project. Any public art project must comply with this adopted Master Plan, and must honor the expressed intentions of the community as a whole.
In the event the City Council does decide to adopt some type of a monuments policy, I recommend only the following simple steps:
- Add a definition of “monument” so applicants have clear guidance as to when it applies.
- Provide an additional step within the public art approval process to route any “monument” project through our Cultural Heritage Committee. The CHC should review the message conveyed by such a project, leaving to the public art jury the task of reviewing the artistic merit of any graphic, sculptural or animated features of the artwork.
- Expand the existing criteria that guide the work of the CHC in approving the content of plaques and interpretive panels, just adopted last spring, for use in reviewing monument projects. These criteria call for plaques and interpretive panels to be “documentable, historically significant, and sensitive to racial, gender, and other bias
We call upon all citizens of San Luis Obispo who love history, and who love our public art program, to contact their council members and ask that we retain the integrity of our public art policies.
We hope other projects will emerge from the “grassroots” in San Luis Obispo to have our heroes portrayed on city property so they can inspire future generations. Personally, I’d like to see a bronze statue honoring the longest-serving San Luis Obispo mayor, Louis Sinsheimer, though his story can be expressed in a variety of ways!
Meanwhile, the TR project is suspended indefinitely while we engage in productive conversations about our shared history with those who wish to revise our understanding of it — often with good reason.
We trust that most council members would not refuse to have a conversation about history. And we call upon them to reject the “monumental mistake” that seeks to erase from our municipal landscape any artistic representation of the people involved in our history.
John Ashbaugh served four years on the SLO City Planning Commission and eight years on the City Council. He is teaching a two-hour, non-credit course called “Monumental Mistakes — Rewriting the Hand of History” for the Lifelong Learners program on Aug. 13 at 10 a.m., at the History Center of SLO. To learn more, visit www.lifelearnerscc.org.