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Unusual Pledge Upsets 'Night Gallery' Artists

To get paid, they had to agree not to 'disparage' leaders of Hollywood beautification group.

March 29, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Artists hired for a city-sponsored Hollywood makeover say it was bad enough when they got stiffed. The worst part, they claim, was when they got stifled.

Painters who spent months drawing movie star portraits on nighttime security doors along Hollywood's Walk of Fame allege that they were shortchanged by as much as half of what they were owed when the time came for their final payment.

Artists say that to receive their last checks, they had to sign an unusual pledge never to complain about their treatment or criticize those in charge of the door project. Any violation would result in a fine that far exceeded what they earned on the project.

The celebrity portraits were financed by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency through an independent group called the Hollywood Beautification Team.

The art project, launched two years ago, was intended to brighten the grimy steel roll-up doors that are lowered at night when Hollywood Boulevard shops and stores are closed.

Painters say that after months of wrangling over pay they were forced to sign an agreement never to "disparage" leaders of the Hollywood Beautification Team before receiving their final checks.

By signing the waiver, artists agreed "to pay liquidated damages to the disparaged person in the amount of $15,000 per occurrence" if they criticized their treatment.

"It's almost blackmail," grumbled artist Preston Craig, who earned $3,700 painting eight of the roll-up doors but forfeited his final check by refusing to sign the don't-disparage waiver.

Operators of the 12-year-old Hollywood Beautification Team, which cleans streets, paints murals and plants trees, deny wrongdoing.

"It's inappropriate to tell lies about people to try to extort money out of people," Sharyn Romano, the chief executive, said of the artists. "We tried to be generous -- I guess it's a lesson I've learned."

During the time they worked on the doors, the artists were on the beautification team's weekly payroll, Romano said. When the project ended on time and amid praise, "I offered them a bonus," she said.

The artists were paid from $92,000 in grant funding from the redevelopment agency. During the 2 1/2-month project, there was discussion about pay raises because of the challenge of the nighttime work and of painting on corrugated steel-door surfaces, according to several of them.

"I was working for something like $18 an hour instead of $50 like I normally earn," said Fairfax district artist Jennifer Snoeyink, who painted Alfred Hitchcock and half a dozen other stars. "In lieu of getting a raise, Sharyn decided to give us a bonus at the end. But nothing was in writing."

The artists worked at night, when shops were closed and the corrugated doors were down.

"The drama of Hollywood doesn't begin at the studios. It begins at street level," Craig, a Van Nuys artist, said of the nights he spent painting. "Between the hookers coming by and propositioning you and the gangbangers and the clubbers going to and from nightclubs, we had quite an audience."

The one thing that all agree on is that the roll-up door portraits -- nicknamed the "Hollywood Night Gallery" -- were an artistic success.

Stylized pictures of Harrison Ford, Myrna Loy, Frank Sinatra and 40 other stars were painted on dark and grubby security doors in 2002. Shopkeepers and nighttime passersby were so enthused by the artwork that a follow-up phase of 50 more doors was proposed for 2003, to be followed by a final 50 additional door portraits after that.

When the "bonuses" did not immediately materialize at the conclusion of the first phase, artists contacted the redevelopment agency and several community groups. One of them, the Hollywood-Vine Assn., called in the office of Hollywood-area Councilman Eric Garcetti.

"We thought that the artists should get their full amount," said Chris Shabel, president of the homeowner and property owners association. "When small people are deprived of their money, they don't always have the wherewithal to fight back."

Josh Kamensky, an aide to Garcetti who tried to work out a compromise, expressed disappointment at the ending. "This is not the way we like things to happen in Hollywood," he said

The Community Redevelopment Agency contends that the door-painting project was out of its hands after the grant was issued to the Hollywood Beautification Team. The agency did not provide bonus money to the beautification team, spokeswoman Kiara Harris said.

"If promises were made to the artists, we would hope the promises would be kept. But we can't enforce it," she said.

Nonetheless, the redevelopment agency tried to mediate the dispute, working with the city attorney's office and a lawyer for the beautification team to divvy up unspent portions of the original grant among the artists, Harris said.

Eight months ago, Deputy City Atty. Beverly Cook issued a payment list to Hollywood Beautification Team lawyer Brian Cole that specified "amounts due each" artist.

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