California Arts Council

State of California

Public Art and Private Protections: Examples and Information about Artists' Rights for Public Arts
Recent Los Angeles legal settlement brings public-art rights to the forefront

Published: 05-01-2008

A recent legal settlement between California artist Kent Twitchell and a host of respondents over the destruction of Twitchell's public-art mural "Ed Ruscha Monument" was announced this week in the Los Angeles Times and Forbes online. "The settlement, disclosed Wednesday, is believed to be the largest awarded under the federal Visual Artists' Rights Act or the California Art Preservation Act, both of which prohibit desecration, alteration or destruction of certain works of public art without giving the artist 90 days' notice to allow the artist the option of removing the artwork," noted the article. (See the full story, or the summary, on the California Arts Council's Arts in the Media page.)

Readers of the California Arts Council's eNewsletter were notified of this controversy and others in a July 2006 article. Read the original article below for information on artists' protections and a background of other recent public-art controversies in California.

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Public Art Creators and Supporters Concerned about their Art
originally published July 28, 2006, in the California Arts Council eNewsletter

Muralist Victor Ochoa is noted in an article in the San Diego Union Tribune to be "waging a one-man campaign to save a mural he painted 18 years ago" at a school set for destruction. Artist Kent Twitchell is notified of the painting-over of a six-story large-scale mural entitled "Ed Ruscha Monument" -- not by the building owners who painted it, but by a curious reporter who noticed first pock-marks in the building and then later the complete repainting. Painters Frank Romero and Willie Herron witness their freeway murals created for the 1984 Olympics splattered with mud-colored paint.

These are three recent examples of conflicts concerning public art in California--not the creation of pieces, which can sometimes garner headlines as members of the community express their personal opinions about pieces, but rather the destruction and desecration of large-scale murals and other pieces.

Vandalism is sometimes the reason for defacement of public art. A life-like sculpture of a young girl in the arts district of Carmel was marred with spots that looked like chicken pox, and assistants to artist J. Seward Johnson, Jr. were hired to repair the damage. Other times it's a mistake--officials from the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) admitted fault in the splattering of Romero's "Going to the Olympics" and Herron's "Luchas del Mundo" (Struggles of the World), telling the Los Angeles Times that the situation was accidental and Caltrans was "not in the mural-destruction business."

"What happened was, somebody was cleaning the walls in that area, and they just unfortunately kept on going," said Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish to the Times. Caltrans said they would restore the pieces.

But sometimes damage isn't from vandals, or an accident of a work crew. In Twitchell's case, he's suing the U.S. Labor Department for $5.5 million in damages. As noted in the Los Angeles Downtown News, "The claim alleges that at least five months before the mural's "desecration," city officials warned counterparts from the Labor Department's Job Corps program --which offers services from the building--and from the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles--which runs the program--that federal and state laws protect works of public art."

Ochoa, with his 22-foot by 42-foot mural that he painted 18 years ago at Sherman Elementary School, would like to strip the mural off the wall using an art preservation technique to reapply it elsewhere, perhaps on the school again once it's rebuilt. The cost will run into the thousands of dollars, but money for art preservation isn't part of the budget to rebuild the school.

Often artists don't know about changes to a building and artwork until it's already been done, as with Twitchell. And there's the question sometimes of what is fine-art protected under the law, and what is a commercial piece that's not.  Ralph Montano, a reporter from the Sacramento Bee, investigated this month if a privately owned piece in front of a former paint store was going to be dismantled. The multi-colored poles at 16th and Q Streets in downtown Sacramento are a well-known local landmark, often winning the title of "favorite public artwork" in informal surveys. The Art Directors and Artists Club of Sacramento (ADAC), a professional organization for designers and others in the arts and graphics world, is especially interested in the piece remaining intact once they found out it was designed by the design company owned by Saul Bass, a famous graphic designer.

"There probably isn't a household in the city that doesn't have one of his designs somewhere inside of it," noted the Sacramento Bee article. "Quaker Oats, Girl Scouts of America, United Way and the paper cups called Dixie all have logos he designed. Film buffs also have admired his work in the title sequences for films by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo and Psycho) and Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear and Goodfellas)." But the building the poles stand in front of is privately owned, it's thought that it was created as part of the design of the building, and currently the piece is not registered with local government agencies for protection.

There are protections for public art in California. Some are by local agencies, but most of the time it's the rights of the artists that are protected, regardless of local ordinances or listings, unless the artist waves rights as specifically spelled out in a contract between the artist and the property owner. Owners are required to notify artists when something significant happens to a piece of public art, giving the artist the option to preserve it, as in the San Diego school case with Ochoa. The California legal code requires that building owners who wish to remove or dismantle large pieces must notify the artist who created the piece. (See California Civil Code, Section 987 for exact wording of the law.)

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