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Public art policy update kicks off with workshop, commissioners discuss code ambiguities, Laguna’s artistic identity 


Policies regarding public art in Laguna Beach are currently under review for a much-needed update in an effort to fill in gaps and ambiguities in city code regarding public art, modernize regulations and better engage with the community, all of which Arts Commission members emphasized during a workshop this week. 

David Plettner-Saunders and Linda Flynn with Cultural Planning Group, the consulting firm tasked with reviewing and recommending updates to the policies, gave a presentation and asked for direction during the public art policy update workshop on Tuesday (Dec. 7).

CPG also helped the city create its Cultural Arts Plan in 2016, which Plettner-Saunders said they’ve been tracking is working well. 

Now, the aim is to get some more clearly defined rules that will help regulate the commission as they move forward, said Arts Commission Chair Adam Schwerner.

“We know, as an Arts Commission, that there have been times when we wished that we had more foundational direction within our guidelines,” Schwerner said. “That would guide how we do our work, how the city council engages with us, how community members engage with us, and how people who might want to gift works of art or donations (of artworks) to the city.”

There’s already a series of policies regarding public art, Schwerner noted, but they’ve found the need for a “365 look” at all of the policies in place and a best practices nationwide review. 

Other commissioners agreed with the overall need to update and fill in any holes. 

“We’ve got rules and regulations, but they’re inconsistent,” said Commissioner Michael Ervin, “and there are no strict policies and procedures.”

There certainly are gaps, shortfalls, or inconsistencies that this policy process can help work out, noted Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl.

There have been frustrations with the lack of clarity or ambiguity within the municipal code during some commission discussions, she said, usually about projects that “have gone awry,” or public art donations, or curating all the art with a lack of space in a small community like Laguna. All of it could be far better explained in updated policies.

“It leaves the commission kind of vulnerable in its decision making,” Poeschl said. 

Also, the world has changed over the last several years, she noted, how people purchase art, engage with art, and want to experience art is very different in today’s world. There are a lot of tools or streamlining processes that Laguna Beach, as a smaller city, could benefit from and help the city be seen as competitive and attractive for its public art collection, she said. 

The ordinances are outdated when considering all of this, Poeschl explained. 

There are also a lot of digital options that they haven’t formally addressed in the policies, added Commissioner Karen Wood.

“We need to update,” she reiterated.

They need to be clearer about what they receive and how they receive it, in terms of donated artwork, Wood said. The obligations the city takes on versus what the artist or donor is responsible for also needs to be explained, she added. 

Deaccession also needs to be addressed, added Commission Vice-Chair Pat Kollenda.

Public art policy update Hive horse mural

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mural by Faith XLVII’s in the canyon at The Hive

Commissioners also discussed how the definition of public art is expanding and the importance of including performance art, something all commissioners enthusiastically agreed with when asked by Flynn.

During the discussion, commissioners also weighed abstract questions about what they want the public art collection to say about Laguna Beach as a whole, and how they can get that message across to the local community and a wider audience. 

“What we as a commission have been wrestling with in the last (few) months is a sense of the fact that art is a part of our unification here in Laguna Beach, that is the thing that keeps us together, regardless of our politics, we are all very proud to be living in an art colony,” said Commissioner Suzi Chauvel. “So how do we get that point across?” 

And how wide is that colony represented, considering “who we are, who we’ve been and who we want to be,” Chauvel said. 

Wood mentioned utilizing various branding and marketing methods to help share their philosophy, while Kollenda pointed out that they have to be able to sell that philosophy to the naysayers. Getting people on board and supporting the work is an important part of the process, Kollenda added. 

The guidelines and policies are the deliverables, Flynn said, but they aren’t “cookie-cutter.”

“In order to personalize and customize them to Laguna Beach we need to understand what the vision is for the program,” Flynn said. 

Summarizing some of the discussion, Flynn said the questions that several commissioners echoed in their own words was essentially “What is the artistic identity of Laguna Beach? And what do you want that to be? And how do you promote the value of public art?”

Along with these guidelines and policies will come processes that will help with those visionary aspects, she said. 

They also need to shape the framework of the policies so that new commissioners or new city staffers come aboard, they can pick it up and continue moving forward, Flynn said. 

It needs to be purposeful with that in mind, Schwerner agreed. 

“What does the program look like in five, 10 or 15 years?” Schwerner asked. “And how does this document help lead the people who will be taking over for us to be as responsive as we have been trying to be to current circumstances and lead them to be, quite honestly, in front of, and not only in reaction to, the community?”

As the Arts Commission, they have endeavored to find ways to provide opportunities for challenges and growth and engagement for both locals and visitors. Not just through naturalized sculptures and art (otters, octopi, birds, etc.), but outside of that in an effort to stay current, like through the temporary art installation program or performance art programs, he said. 

“So how do we, through this document…keep that thread going?” he asked. 

Schwerner hoped CPG, as the experts in the policymaking world of art, can bring in ideas from other municipalities and reveal best practices that Laguna Beach can incorporate.

“The idea here is to bring to the table those things that will enrich our capacity to manage this stuff,” which will be led through their expertise, Schwerner said. 

Several commissioners also agreed about the importance of staying flexible enough so that the way people contribute is not overly regimented. 

“I would always like to have a measure of flexibility in whatever we put together so that we’re not hog-tied, hamstrung, whatever, in the minutia of rules, which I think is the death of art,” Kollenda said. 

They could review the policies every few years so they keep up and aren’t too locked down, Ervin suggested.

Public art policy update caretakers sculptures

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The controversial Caretakers installation by Mark Jenkins and Sandra Fernandez on the lawn at city hall

Under scope of work, Plettner-Saunders explained several objectives: Evolve the approach to public art; educate the public about the role public art plays in the community; identify resources for the program; not a “public art master plan,” which has already been established and consulted with the community about vision and goals.

It’s about connecting with people and trying to identify and understand any problems/issues and what should be done differently, Plettner-Saunders explained. Once they understand what needs to be changed locally, they can look across the country for examples of best practices, which will guide them in drafting the new ordinances. 

Tasks will include talking with stakeholders, considering national best practices, update ordinances, policies, and guidelines, and address commissioning, creating, placement, maintenance, donations, deaccessioning, and promotion.

Interviews with key stakeholders were expected to start this week, including developers, artists, city officials and staff, architects and donors. 

The team will also tour the collection and potential sites, work to clarify the gaps and changes needed to the program and research approaches from other communities. 

CPG will eventually return with draft ordinances, policies and other possible changes. 

The next Arts Commission workshop will likely be in March.

In response to questions asked by CPG prior to the workshop, commissioners noted their best experiences/examples with public art: Elizabeth Turk’s Umbrellas; the Forest Avenue promenade; Heisler Park, curated accumulation of works; Hive murals; the temporary art program; and interactive works.

Several commissioners emphasized the affect the temporary art program has had on people, he noted. Some pieces have been very engaging, Plettner-Saunders pointed out, like The Caretakers by Mark Jenkins and Sandra Fernandez installation of human figures in hoodies performing a variety of tasks on the lawn of city hall.

In response to the question about challenges they’ve faced, commissioners answered: Community involvement and communication; naysayers inhibiting public art; uniting disparate voices/visions; the village entrance project; compromising artistic integrity; social media amplifying opposition; and cost/budget concerns. 

When asked about their aspirations for public art in Laguna Beach, commissioners had several ideas that Plettner-Saunders summarized: Cutting edge artists, especially temporary art; larger, more important works; community involvement; national and international artists; broaden the community vision and dialogue; extend the city’s reputation for artistic excellence; and more public art projects. 

“It’s really clear that you are aspirational and you’re experiencing some frustration in being able to take the program and the community where you want it to be,” Plettner-Saunders said. “And you all underline that. It seems to be a strong belief in the power of public art and its role in the community.”

Public art policy update Third Reef mural

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The mosaic mural “Third Reef” by Marlo Bartels

The policy discussion recently came up at a meeting when the Arts Commission tabled a proposal to replace a deteriorating mosaic mural until the upcoming public art policy update is completed, which kicks off later this year with a public workshop. 

On October 25, commissioners discussed a proposal to repair and/or replace the Third Reef mural by Marlo Bartels, located at the steps and seating area at the Brooks Street beach access. 

Although there was no vote or action taken at the meeting, there was consensus among the commissioners to delay a decision on the mosaic mural until after direction from the consulting firm that’s working on the review and update of the city’s public art ordinance and policy.

The mural was donated in 2009. One of the discussion points during the public art policy update process regarding gifted art will be maintenance and whether it should come included in the budget.


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