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Artist to Receive Back Pay

A labor agency awards the muralist $2,715 withheld for work on the Hollywood project.

August 23, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

A painter who says he was shortchanged for his work on a Hollywood art project -- and then was forbidden to talk about it -- has won back pay from a city-sponsored group.

Muralist Preston Craig was awarded $2,715 that he said the Hollywood Beautification Team improperly withheld from him when he decorated roll-down security doors along Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

The state Labor Commission decision, issued last week, clears the way for other artists involved in the 2002 "Night Gallery" movie-star portrait project to seek additional compensation for their work.

But the ruling apparently does little to patch over a growing rift between those who commissioned the Hollywood art and those who paid for it.

Craig was among a group of artists hired by the Hollywood Beautification Team to paint faces of such stars as Harrison Ford, James Cagney, Eva Gabor and Norma Shearer on businesses' steel doors. The work was financed by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

But Craig and others said they were paid only about half of what they were owed -- and then only after being forced to sign a pledge never to complain about their treatment or criticize those in charge of the project.

Any violation of the non-disparagement agreement would require artists "to pay liquidated damages to the disparaged person in the amount of $15,000 per occurrence" -- far more than any of them earned for the mural work.

For months, the beautification team and the redevelopment agency have argued over who was responsible for the controversial don't-badmouth-us clause in the final-payment acknowledgment form that artists were given to sign. The free-speech issue quickly became an embarrassment to the city when artists made it public.

Craig, of Van Nuys, was paid $3,700 to paint eight doors. But he and the eight other artists say they were promised bonuses at the end of the project because of the difficulty of the work, which had to be done during nighttime hours when the corrugated steel barriers were lowered.

When the bonuses weren't paid, the artists complained to the redevelopment agency, which had funded the door murals through a $92,000 grant.

Redevelopment officials tried to referee the dispute. They asked the city attorney's office to work with a beautification team lawyer to divide leftover grant money and distribute it to the artists.

Eventually, a list specifying the amounts due each artist was drawn up. But payments were reduced after the beautification team discovered that final Night Gallery costs had been more than previously thought.

Artists were jolted by final checks that they said were about half of what they expected. And they were outraged by the non-disparagement waiver they were told to sign to obtain the money.

Some, like Craig, refused to sign.

"It's so much more a matter of principle than money -- to get half the amount you were originally promised and to have to sign this paper to get it," said Jennifer Snoeyink, who painted Alfred Hitchcock and half a dozen other stars. She forfeited her money when she refused to sign the form.

Craig took his complaint to the state, demanding his $2,300 bonus plus a $7,000 "waiting time penalty." In last week's ruling, a Labor Commission hearing officer decided that Craig should be paid the $2,300 bonus, plus $415 in interest. But the penalty fee was rejected because of "confusion" over who was to blame for the dispute.

Craig was quick to declare victory. But so was the Hollywood Beautification Team.

"The other artists were waiting to see what would happen. They will file their appeals," Craig predicted. "I'm encouraging other artists who signed the waiver to go to the labor commissioner's office."

Beautification team Chief Executive Sharyn Romano said the ruling vindicates her 12-year-old organization. She blamed the redevelopment agency for the dispute.

"[Craig] did not win. I feel pretty good," Romano said, referring to the penalty the muralist had sought. "We had wanted to pay that group of artists that amount of money, and then the CRA brought some confusion to the situation."

Romano repeated her contention that the redevelopment agency, not her group, required artists to sign the non-disparagement waiver.

That prompted a quick response Friday from redevelopment officials. They released documents they said show that Romano's group added the clause without the knowledge of the agency.

"Any assertion that we put that language in is false and inaccurate," said Kiara Harris, spokeswoman for the redevelopment agency. "The documentation proves otherwise."

Five artists are launching a new phase of Hollywood Boulevard mural paintings, bringing the number of star portraits to 60, Romano said.

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