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Hansen: Open season on public art

June 13, 2013|By David Hansen
  • Artist Cheryl Ekstrom's new sculpture "Warrior's United" was installed on Broadway Street -- not far from a dangerous curve -- as part of the city's Art in Public Places.
Artist Cheryl Ekstrom's new sculpture "Warrior's… (David Hansen )

Laguna Beach residents all believe they are art critics, which is why the real experts on the city's Arts Commission are in a no-win situation.

Loved or hated, every piece of public art in Laguna gets judged — every single day.

And now, the commission has two more members joining the fray. David Emmes and Suzanne Mellor were added recently by the last City Council, making it a nine-member commission.

The extra members, however, are not working artists. Both are professional board members of various groups. Emmes is the retiring founding director of the South Coast Repertory, and Mellor is on the board at Laguna College of Art and Design and the National Gallery.

While prestigious additions, their opinion on public art will be like anyone else: fickle.

"If you have an opinion about art — if you like it or don't like — it's better than not caring," said Ken Auster, one of the few actual artists on the commission. Auster is an award-winning professional painter whose work is on permanent display at several museums.

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The Arts Commission also makes recommendations on the city pole banners, public music concerts and related activities. But it's the public art that gets the most attention.

For example, the "People's Council" in front of the fire station was controversial in 2006. But now it's hard not to smile when you see visitors posing for pictures around the stoic statutes as if they were the Moai of Easter Island.

Generally speaking, however, the public art in Laguna Beach is safe and predictable: lots of whales, surfing murals and realistic scenery.

Most often, that safety has to do with the constraints of the location and similar factors, according to Auster.

"There's been some things that have been put in that work really well, and on the other hand, there's been things that are more decorative than they are substantive," he said.

It's hard to compare the relatively small Laguna to a place like Los Angeles, he said.

"A lot of times you'll see things in public places in Los Angeles that are heroic," he said. "Whether you like it or you don't, they're large because they have big spaces to put them in. We don't have that kind of space in Laguna.

"So something that would be incredible 20 feet tall could become kind of cliché if it's only 2 feet tall. It's just the nature of the beast."

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