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Public art: coming to a theater near you

by The Downey Patriot


DOWNEY – After abolishing the Art in Public Places Committee last month, Downey council members are taking a direct approach in beautifying parts of the city, agreeing Tuesday to pay a Tustin firm $17,700 to decorate insipid utility boxes and paint a mural outside the shuttered Avenue Theatre.

Citing lack of progress, the council did away with the citizen committee last month, assuming its duties and taking control of a $350,000 public art fund.

The contract approved Tuesday with Hartzog & Crabill, Inc., requires the firm to paint seven traffic signal boxes, including three in Downtown Downey. Two will be painted to resemble flower planters and the other, located near the library, will resemble a stack of books.

The four remaining boxes, situated along major corridors, will be painted with an American flag theme. Hartzog & Crabill has completed similar projects in Bellflower, Paramount and Long Beach.

Perhaps most eye-catching, however, will be a 9-ft. x 17-ft. mural to be painted outside the publicly-owned Avenue Theatre depicting a showing of “West Side Story.” The mural’s design was based on an actual photograph taken when the musical premiered at the Avenue in 1961.

The Avenue Theatre is currently closed as the city considers redevelopment options.

The art projects are not without its detractors. Andrew Wahlquist, founder of Downey Arts Coalition, an initiative seeking to expand art and cultural options in Downey, called the mural “ironic.”

“This mural makes a statement, albeit an ironic one: we know The Avenue is shuttered and falling apart, so we’ll put up the money to paint over it with a façade depicting a day when it was vibrant and alive,” Wahlquist wrote on his website, “That will tide us over until the city finally develops its plan to tear down the building and eliminate all traces of it.”

Meanwhile, members of the Downey Conservancy group on Facebook began lobbying Monday for more permanent pieces of art. They also said local artists could have created the mural and painted the electrical boxes at a significantly lower cost.

“Having sat on the Art in Public Places Committee, this was not to be the intended use of the money. The money was supposed to be used for professional art done by professional artists,” teacher George Redfox wrote in a message posted on The Downey Patriot’s website. “These boxes could easily be painted by local artists for a lot less money. This would also give the people of the community a connection to the project and it would generate pride in the work and the community itself.”

Councilman Mario Guerra said the city originally intended to commission local artists for the work but received no replies.

“I have been asking our community for about three years to step up and help us organize a plan to have these power boxes done by local artists,” Guerra said. “I have asked, encouraged and almost pleaded…I never heard back from anyone.”

On Tuesday, assistant city manager Gilbert Livas said local artists will be able to participate in future art ventures. In fact, the City Council on Tuesday amended its “Art in Public Places” policy manual and struck a requirement that participating artists be “renowned.”

In addition to the art projects, the public art fund will also be tapped to purchase and install a police memorial in front of the police department and a veterans monument tentatively planned at the Civic Center. Council members have indicated they would like to see a proposed “Wall of Fame” outside City Hall, paid for with public art funds.

The public art program began in 2005 and is funded by a 1% fee levied on new project developments valued at $500,000 or higher. Developers have the option of installing a piece of public art valued at a minimum $30,000 or paying the cash directly to the city.

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