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City and artist hit legal snag in finding a new site for beloved 'Vermonica' light post sculpture

City and artist hit legal snag in finding a new site for beloved 'Vermonica' light post sculpture
Artist Sheila Klein works on installing the "Vermonica" light-post sculpture in 1993. (Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)

An effort to relocate "Vermonica," the beloved light-post installation that artist Sheila Klein created in East Hollywood in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, has hit a snag. The city attorney's office says the installation, fashioned from vintage light posts, might not be an artwork in the eyes of the law.

Klein says: "That is ridiculous."

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Attorney Eric Bjorgum, who is assisting Klein with her case (and who serves as president of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles), made a formal request in January that the artist be made a consultant on any project to relocate the work.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office replied that because "Vermonica" was always intended to be temporary, and the light poles serve a "utilitarian function," it is not protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act (a 1990 law that grants artists intellectual property rights over their work).

"Vermonica" was installed in a privately owned strip mall parking lot at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in 1993. The piece was intended to remain installed for about a year, but "Vermonica," which predates Chris Burden's "Urban Light" by 15 years, became so popular that it remained in place for almost a quarter of a century.

Last November, the strip mall owner asked that the piece be removed to make way for construction and, giving no notice to the artist or the public, the Bureau of Street Lighting moved "Vermonica" to its Santa Monica Boulevard offices, two blocks to the east.

Klein, backed by preservationists and the arts community, protested.

"This is a site-sensitive piece," said Klein at the time. "Context is everything. Part of the piece is that it changes its context. It's not some statue where you can say, 'I'll move it to another square.'"

"This is not my piece," she added, "and it is no longer 'Vermonica.'"

"Vermonica" has always occupied a legal gray area — created with funds from the Department of Cultural Affairs with light posts on loan from the Bureau of Street Lighting and installed on private property.

In December, Klein, who is now based in Washington state, held a teleconference with various city leaders, including Department of Cultural Affairs head Danielle Brazell, to determine the future of the work.

Klein says the group explored the possibility of having the city formally acquire the work and relocate it to another site — possibly in East Hollywood. Since the artist was headed out of the country at the time, they agreed to reconvene in the spring.

"It was a very positive meeting and people were very can-do," Klein says.

At the recommendation of muralist Kent Twitchell, Klein enlisted Bjorgum to inform the city how she would like to see the process unfold. (Twitchell famously had a building-sized mural of fellow painter Ed Ruscha destroyed without his consent in 2006. He later took the building's owner to court and the judge decided that the destruction violated the Visual Artists Rights Act.)

In addition to having Klein named a consultant on the project, the letter asked that a sign be placed alongside the "Vermonica" street lamps to explain the status of the piece. It also asked that Klein be remunerated by the city for any related legal fees.

The city attorney's office refused these requests as well.

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Brazell says the response is simply legal protocol.

"When we get a letter from an attorney, our city attorney has to respond," she explains. "We are still totally committed to the project, to re-siting it, in collaborating with the artist."

But, she adds, the fix may take several years. Not only does the city need to formally acquire the light posts, it needs to choose a site and acquire funding to develop it. After that, the project will be formally designed, which will require the involvement of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Engineering.

Klein says she would like to see a more constructive overture from the city.

"I think that the signage should go up and they should start crafting a letter of agreement with me that they want to acquire the piece and they want to move the piece," Klein says. "A definite commitment from them is what I need."

According to Brazell, the city is committed.

"We have to start from the beginning," she says. "And we have to make sure that it's being done properly this time. … This art work has been unprotected for more than 20 years — that is what I'm hoping to fix."

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