Appreciation of art is an exercise in subjectivity. One person’s masterpiece is the next person’s eyesore.
That truism was on full display at last week’s Huntington Beach Design Review Board meeting, where some residents panned a proposed wrap-around mural while others extolled its vibrancy.
Funded by the nonprofit Huntington Beach Public Art Alliance, the paintings would grace the bunker-like Frontier Communications building at 602 Main St. Bright beach-theme images would blossom where beige, windowless walls now stand.
A 4,200-square-foot image of a grinning surfer riding a huge wave, the pier behind him, would face Main Street – where the shopping and restaurant hub transitions into a neighborhood. The Acacia Avenue side would boast a 2,600-square-foot depiction of upright surfboards in the sand with a lifeguard station as the backdrop.
“Who can’t connect with a smile and a surfer and a beautiful wave?” said resident Ali Santura, who praised the rendering for capturing the “the vibe of local people.”
The mural could only improve “that monolith, the ugliest building in Huntington Beach,” said Rick Mitchell.
On the other end of the spectrum, Main Street denizen Kelly Frankiewicz called the surfer a “30-foot peeping Tom.” Resident Patrick O’Neill weighed in with, “This imagery is tired, it’s played out.”
Design Review participants agreed with those latter sentiments, deciding 3-0 on Thursday, May 9, not to recommend the mural to the Planning Commission. “It is harsh to the eye,” member Mariana Morris commented.
Michael Grant recused himself. He also sits on the Planning Commission, which will consider the mural at a yet to be determined date. Ultimately, the mural requires approval by the City Council.
Kathie Schey, who led the meeting, said public artwork should be “innovative” rather than derivative of other surfing murals around town.
“This would be the largest mural in the city, and in a very prominent location,” she said, noting its proximity to the Huntington Beach Art Center. “Shouldn’t that site present the best art we can offer?”
Huntington Beach Public Art Alliance co-founder Kim Kramer approached Frontier with the idea for a mural early last year. The building, called a “central office,” houses climate-sensitive telecommunications equipment.
Frontier spokesman Javier Mendoza said company officials thought dressing up the bland site “could be a positive contribution to the community, pending necessary public approval.”
Kramer has left his mark around town with two other major projects, neither of which underwent city approval. In 2017, he launched a program to decorate 17 utility boxes on the pier and 30 dumpsters downtown. Those objects were painted by a variety of artists, including high school students.
However, when it came to the mural, the Alliance did not issue a call for artists. Instead, Kramer said, local muralist Melissa Murphy volunteered to create the design and paint it free of charge.
Kramer tried to assure board members that the final product will not “have the appearance of being a cartoon,” as its rough draft might indicate. “Trust me,” he said, “once Melissa puts her brush on it, the mural will be beautiful.”
The lack of community outreach frustrated some people who live in the vicinity of the Frontier building. Vanessa Martinez, whose house faces the would-be mural, complained that she and neighbors were never consulted.
“This pet project is being pushed through by a small group of people,” she said. “How much more surfboard art do we need? We are turning our city into a surfing theme park.”
Asked by board member Lilli Cutler why his organization didn’t brainstorm with city staff, residents and other artists, Kramer noted that the mural would not be funded by tax dollars.
The Frontier building sits on the northern edge of a seven-block section of Main Street regulated by the Downtown Specific Plan, adopted by the city in 2010. If just a block farther north, the mural likely “wouldn’t require public hearings or further scrutiny,” said Joanna Cortez, associate planner for the city.
While the Downtown Specific Plan encourages developers to incorporate public art, it does not address murals on preexisting buildings. When it went before the Design Review Board, the mural landed by default under the category of “facade improvement” – which promotes muted colors to avoid accentuating the size of the wall.
“Obviously, a mural would not fit the criteria for facade improvement unless it were beige,” Kramer said in an interview.
Councilwoman Lyn Semeta wants to clarify that squishy delineation citywide with a “master plan for public art,” which she presented to her colleagues a year ago. The city is in the process of establishing guidelines for privately funded art in public arenas, she said in an interview.
“I would prefer the plan be in place before such a large-scale art project goes forward,” Semeta said about the mural. “By definition, public art should include input from the community.”
But Huntington Beach Public Art Alliance board member Dan Kalmick, who is also a planning commissioner, argued that a bigger issue than just aesthetics is at stake.
“Cities shouldn’t be in charge of regulating art,” he said in an interview. “That’s a slippery slope. Artistic expression is protected by the First Amendment.”
Citing the adage “a camel is a horse designed by a committee,” Kalmick said true art is not borne from a patchwork of viewpoints.
“We’re never going to get 100 percent of people to agree on something,” he said. “We could start this whole process over again and end up back where we are right now.”
Source: Orange County Register