Mural’s Sad Fate Spotlights Civic Art Program

Tuesday February 03, 2004

An incident that left a $10,000 mural—meant to celebrate the city’s bike users—sitting at the Public Works Department’s corporate yard, caked in mud and punctured by gouges and holes, raises questions about Berkeley civic arts program 

Critics say the incident is just one of the city’s many fumbles involving public art. 

“Bicycle Mural,” painted by Tricia Tripp for the city of Berkeley six years ago, had been banished to an open storage unit at Public Works for several years after vandals attacked the work at its first location along Addison Street near Shattuck Avenue and then again while up at Berkeley High. 

Rene Cardinaux, city director of Public Works, said the department was told the piece would be stored for a couple of weeks. Instead the mural--which is painted on several plywood panels--sat in an open storage unit for so long that a crew accidentally mistook it for scrap wood when they were hunting for something to dam up an overflowing ditch. 

Jos Sances, chair of the city’s arts commission, said the mural was already a subject of controversy for many residents because it was commissioned without public approval. Originally requested by Councilmember Dona Spring, funding for the project was approved by the city council but the Office of Economic Development never ran the request by the arts commission, allowing the project to be painted without public input. 

Spring said the incident prompted the council to re-write the rules to ensure arts commission oversight of any public art project, but many were still angered by the city’s lack of process. 

According to Mary Ann Merker, civic arts coordinator for the city of Berkeley, laws mandating oversight by the arts commissions are part of legislation encompassing the entire civic arts process, some of which existed before the mural incident but were subsequently updated. 

As the law now stands, proposals are sent to artists, and the top three are selected to go before a public panel that includes community members and other artists. Each artist is given $500 dollars from the city to create a mock-up of their project before the finalist is chosen. The city’s art commission then takes over and administers the project. 

Before the process was streamlined, other artists suffered under city policies, including Osha Neumann, the city’s well-known homeless rights legal advocate and muralist, who had one of his own creations ruined when the Berkeley Unified School district hired a contractor to repair the gym at Willard Middle School. 

Back in 1980, Neumann and a host of volunteers, funded by a state grant, painted “Intersections,” a large mural on the school’s west wall. Meant to depict the intersections of life, Neumann said the mural was nearly three stories high and almost a third of a block long and took months to paint. 

The mural was painted over after the architect hired to renovate the gym requested approval at a school board meeting Neumann didn’t attend. He learned of the action only after passersby noticed the destruction and called the city to investigate after painters were two-thirds finished with the cover-up. The painters were stopped, but too late for Neumann to restore the lost sections. 

“It was really profoundly thoughtless,” said Neumann, “To make all these decisions and never consult the artists or the community.” He said the money spent to paint over the mural would have paid for an entire renovation of the piece. 

Neumann has painted several other murals in Berkeley including the rendition of People’s Park on the north side of Amoeba music and the front of La Pena Cultural Center. 

He said the school mural “was a project I had put my heart and soul into, I knew it would never happen again, we would never get the resources again.” 

Even today, with stringent guidelines and public oversight, the city still receives heavy criticism for their public arts programs. 

Until recently, said Sances, the city never paid much attention to civic arts. He estimates that Berkeley has a higher per capita ratio of artists than Manhattan, which increases the competition and the quality of the art. Yet he says the amount of public art in the city is minimal. 

“Up until five or so years ago, there wasn’t much public art,” said Sances. “The notion that Berkeley has had an active civic arts program is a recent occurrence.” 

Some city commissions, including the mural that usually hangs above the city council—painted by Romare Bearden, a pre-eminent African American artist—have helped the city’s civic arts project gain recognition. But, he said, compared to the quality and quantity of art the community could potentially produce, Berkeley lags behind. 

The city recently generated considerable coverage for additions to the downtown arts project funded by the voter-approved Measure S. Critics, who have not complained as much about the funding, have targeted the project’s focus on downtown. 

“I’m completely against [the city] gathering the art they consider worthy and putting it in one place,” said Carol Denney, a Berkeley resident and well-known singer-songwriter. 

Mayor Tom Bates said the project improvements are meant to enhance the downtown area and in turn generate revenue for business. He said the city’s retail sales tax revenues have steadily fallen and hopes a more attractive downtown will help the existing businesses. 

Denney sees the district improvements as a project that neglects the rest of the city while promoting an already affluent area. 

In a recent satirical newsletter she produced, Denney gathered a number of poems written about potholes and holes in the sidewalks which she says the city consistently neglects while continuing to focus on downtown. 

One of the poems, a haiku called “Speak Within” reads,  

murmur to the hole,  

You will always be safe from, 

this stupid Council. 

She partially blames the city’s disrepair for the death of Berkeley’s well-known disabled activist Fred Lupke, who like others in wheelchairs, sometimes had to venture into the street because the sidewalks were broken. 

“Unless you want to circle the same block eternally, you have to venture into the street,” she said. 

Mayor Bates said he is concerned with the city’s disrepair but said the number of projects the city faces outweighs their resources. 

“The declining infrastructure is a major problem,” he said. “It seems like we can never catch up.” 

According to the civic arts department’s Merker, the downtown project’s budget is $300,000 plus an additional $60,000 received in donations. The current civic arts budget, which fluctuates and rolls over from year to year, is $400,000. 

Money for the civic arts program is generated from capital improvement projects, or new city construction, with 1.5 percent of a project’s total revenue automatically earmarked for the civic art.  

Compared to the 50-plus percent of the entire city budget that goes to police and firefighters, Santos said the figures alone says quite a bit about the city’s priorities. 

“The city has traditionally taken the arts for granted,” he said. “The problem with art is that it is easy to not have. The public can be very harsh on art. It doesn’t have a seeming purpose, and we’re cultivated to think that everything needs a purpose. [But] the world is a much better place with art, it’s the kind of thing that cultivates us.”