City Hall may have dug itself a hole over an artwork on a shovel. Los Angeles artist John Outterbridge is unhappy that a piece the city commissioned for an exhibition four years ago was given as a going-away present last summer to Margie J. Reese, former general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department.
Meanwhile, leaders of citizens' groups devoted to the Watts Towers and the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center are wondering whether it was proper for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to bestow an apparently city-owned artwork on an outgoing employee -- not to mention "a travesty" from an artistic point of view, because it offended a respected artist and compromised the unity of a group project created to mark a public occasion.
Karen Constine, the Cultural Affairs Department's interim general manager, said Thursday that officials are still trying to determine "who are the rightful owners" of the Outterbridge work and are determined that it will end up in its "rightful home." The work is assumed to be with Reese, who could not be reached for comment.
Outterbridge's shovel was one of 13, each by a different L.A. artist, that the arts center commissioned for the Feb. 6, 2003, ceremonial groundbreaking for the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, now under construction next to the existing facility.
On its blade, Outterbridge depicted the A-frame shotgun house that served as the Watts Towers Arts Center until it was demolished to make way for the city-run facility that opened in 1975.
Outterbridge, the center's director from 1975 to 1992, made the piece from acrylic paint, wood fragments, bits of jewelry and broken pottery pieces. He intended the shovel to remain "part of the archival holdings" of the arts center, and he thinks it should never have been separated from the others. Artistically, he said, the group of shovels constitutes a single, selfcontained document of a moment in the cultural history of Watts.
"My shovel is one of the children of the groundbreaking," he said, and removing it from its kin "would be like separating a mother from the child."
That officials in the Cultural Affairs Department and the mayor's office apparently didn't understand this is troubling, Outterbridge said.
"I think the city fathers should be much more aware of the essence and importance of the arts," he said. "They are people who are charged with developing that sensibility, and they don't have it."
Outterbridge's piece was exhibited with the other shovels twice, in 2003 and 2004, in a show called "Spirits of the Ancestors." The works remained in storage at the arts center, where three of the 13 -- identical items from Home Depot before they became works of art -- hang in an entryway display.
The city's administrative code says that "no ... work of art belonging to or in the possession of the city shall be removed, relocated or altered" unless the Cultural Affairs Commission approves it.
But Anthony De Los Reyes, the commission's president, and commissioner Gayle Garner Roski on Wednesday could not recall any discussion of the Outterbridge piece before it was given to Reese. De Los Reyes said he attended a July reception for Reese in the courtyard of Plaza de la Raza, a private arts center and academy, and saw Villaraigosa present the shovel to her. The commission president, whose panel has limited authority and is mainly an advisory body to the Cultural Affairs Department, said he didn't know then that the shovel belonged to the city. He assumed that "someone in Cultural Affairs" had arranged the gift.
Rudy Barbee, president of the Friends of the Watts Towers Arts Center, said he inadvertently found out about the gift last fall when Rosie Lee Hooks, the center's director, was briefing his group about other matters and news of the Outterbridge shovel's exit "came bubbling out."
"Certain of the Cultural Affairs and arts center staff balked at the idea, but they were overridden," Barbee said. "It's a travesty. A city of 3.9 million, and it's run like a backwater."
Hooks said Wednesday that on the day of the farewell reception, Leslie Thomas, the assistant general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department, told her to bring the Outterbridge shovel to Plaza de la Raza so the mayor could present it to Reese. Thomas later had the shovel mounted in a Plexiglas box and asked Cultural Affairs employee Mauricio Vallejo to ship it to Dallas -- where Reese and her attorney husband, Foster Reese III, have a home -- according to an e-mail exchange last month between Mark Greenfield, the Municipal Art Gallery director who is Vallejo's supervisor, and Michael Cornwell, vice chair of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts, a citizens' watchdog group that has been consistently critical of the city's stewardship of the Watts Towers.