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Glendale Asks Itself: What Is Public Art?

October 05, 1989|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Glendale city officials this week embarked on an expedition to bring art and culture to the streets of a revitalizing downtown, but they see their mission as fraught with pitfalls.

In the first of two scheduled study sessions, City Council members met Monday with more than 20 art experts, design consultants and developers in an effort to define public art and its role in boosting the morale of a community.

While they learned that public art can take many forms--from historic statues of Leningrad to whimsical manhole covers in Seattle--their concern is with the shape of art in the eye of the beholder.

Don't Get Carried Away

"We don't want to get carried away and decide we're going to teach the poor slobs in Glendale what art is all about," warned Mayor Jerold F. Milner, who said he is concerned that any public art advisory board might be prone "to impose our own will" on what is considered art.

"No matter what we do, we are going to have a lot of controversy," Milner added, referring to problems that frequently crop up in matters of personal taste in the arts, music and other cultural pursuits.

Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg said her definition of art in traditional, conservative Glendale "may be what we're comfortable with." She said controversy over artwork could lead to "knock-down and drag-out fights and probably lose friends for life."

In their preliminary study session Monday, council members agreed that they need to know more about how municipal arts policies go wrong.

Glendale has never had an arts policy, but cities that do often find them the target of severe criticism, council members said. Councilman Carl Raggio said he wants to hear "the horror stories" experienced by other cities. Milner asked: "Where did people go wrong, and how can we avoid that?"

They expect to answer some of the questions at a second study session Monday at 2:30 p.m. in the city manager's conference room at City Hall.

Glendale City Council members and Redevelopment Agency officials have long talked about adopting an arts policy as part of the downtown revitalization. But this is the first year that funds have been set aside--$100,000 this year and for each of the next four years--in the city budget for such a program, City Manager David Ramsay said.

A keen interest in art and cultural development of the downtown has emerged with the apparent success of the downtown redevelopment zone formed in 1972, said Frank Fuller, the city's design consultant with ELS Design Group of Berkeley.

Much development has taken place in the last five to seven years, "a pace faster than the agency would like," Fuller said, and the city can afford to be choosier about the amenities it accepts and demands in new projects. "Development is now happening with a different level of quality," he said.

No Shoe Boxes

For example, proposed development on the key northwest block of Broadway and Brand Boulevard has emerged from the shoe box-like twin towers planned by an earlier developer to an elaborate design by Homart Development Co. of Chicago for a large public plaza with a water fountain sculpture and public art shows.

"There has been a real void in exhibitions in Glendale," said Jullian Coldiron, a Pasadena curator who has been putting on shows for 18 months at the new Allstate building at 801 N. Brand Blvd., north of the Ventura Freeway.

She said the exhibitions--the first ongoing art show in Glendale--have "stimulated people, even if they saw something they didn't like." Allstate is opening a show today of sculptures, mixed-media and paintings, to run through Nov. 30.

"You need something that brings a kind of liveliness to the inner city," said Mickey Gustin of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, who called the pedestrian-oriented ambience being developed on Maryland Avenue between Broadway and Wilson Avenue "absolutely wonderful."

The Maryland improvements, featuring brick and concrete-block paving and walkways, are the most expensive undertaken in the city. The development will feature water fountains, ornamental street lights and other architectural art forms.

Gustin said public art "is anything that brings a kind of liveliness to the inner city."

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