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Council Clears a Path for Wyland in Freeway Art Project

Culture: Panel OKs $143,000 and makes amendment so famed whale artist can compete with locals on a roadside work to attract tourists.


VENTURA — With one dissenting vote, the City Council voted Monday to set aside $143,000 and amend this year's public art project list so that marine artist Wyland can compete to paint his leviathans on a drab stretch of the Ventura Freeway wall.

Local artists, along with Wyland, whose work is popular across the country, will now be eligible to submit art proposals for a project costing up to $125,000. The work would be painted in the California Street offramp area--and could range from painting the railroad bridge that spans the freeway, to splashing a colorful mural along the reinforced freeway wall.

The council set aside an additional $18,750 for administration of the project.

Several council members and downtown merchants say they hope an eye-catching art project will lure speeding cars off the freeway and into Ventura.

Noting that there is nothing worse than a politician who enters into art, Councilman Gary Tuttle took the plunge.

"I think this is a great opportunity, not just to do a Wyland project, but to make that stretch of California Street from California 66 to the Holiday Inn a celebration of the sea," Tuttle said, adding that he could envision a corridor of art--complete with sculptures and paintings--along the boulevard from City Hall to the ocean.

Councilman Ray Di Guilio, who cast the only no vote, said he supports public art in the area but opposes amending the project list so late in the game.

"I am concerned about the amount of money, and the [perversion of] the public arts process," Di Guilio said. "If you favor one group over another, where do you say no? This sends the wrong message."

The city decided to consider the additional project after Ventura Visitors' and Convention Bureau Executive Director Bill Clawson proposed having Wyland paint his familiar giant whales on 552 feet of freeway wall near the California Street offramp.

After two years of phone calls and letters, Clawson had persuaded Wyland--who has painted marine murals in sites ranging from Baltimore to Hawaii--to paint a mural in Ventura in 1998 for $250,000.

Clawson said he would raise half the money privately. The other $125,000, he proposed, should come from the city's $800,000 in public arts funds.

Initially, the city's art in public places committee blanched at the idea of having an artist as commercial as Wyland adorn the freeway walls. They argued that any public art project should also be open to bids from local artists.

But on Sept. 2, the Art in Public Places Advisory Committee recommended that the 1996-97 project list include an art project at the California Street offramp, provided local artists can compete for the project.

Clawson made clear that even though the council approved the project, there is no guarantee that Wyland will be selected. Nevertheless, the meeting drew an outpouring of passionate anti-Wyland sentiment from several members of the public.

"I've seen his work," Bill Berger said. "And I hope we are not going to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a work by a whacked-out recluse--an out-of-state whacked-out recluse. I wouldn't drive five miles to see a Wyland."

He recommended having local artists do a mural like the nationally recognized one on the side of an Avenue liquor store.

Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures also hopes Wyland is not selected.

"I do not favor Wyland," she said flatly. "I do not see him as a world-class artist. If we do Wyland, we would be another 'me-too' Southern California city . . . like a rubber stamp of all the other cities that have Wyland on their parking structures and buildings."

But at least three council members--Mayor Jack Tingstrom, Jim Friedman and Tuttle--said they hope it is Wyland who is eventually selected--because of the fame he will bring to Ventura.

"All these people come to Ventura to watch whales," said Tingstrom, who recalled how he used to see whales outside the kelp beds along the coast as a youth. "His paintings tell a story. They are unique.

"We are looking for something that will be noticeable throughout the world. At least I am."

Added Friedman: "I am very impressed with Wyland's work, and would be ecstatic if this city was able to land a Wyland art project . . . but if it turns out to be someone else, I could certainly go with that also."

Cultural Affairs Coordinator Sonia Tower estimates that the city will begin accepting proposals in two to three months. A final decision on an artist should be made by early February.

The public art committee will select the winner, but because the project is over $25,000, the City Council will have to review the committee's decision.

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