Art as an Urban Dweller

Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs is moving to remedy a regrettable oversight in the city’s funding of the arts. He will be introducing in the weeks ahead an ordinance to set aside a prescribed percentage of the value of all construction on city-owned land for the purchase of art.

It is high time. For in this field the city that regards itself as a pioneer in so many ways will merely be catching up with other parts of the state and nation.

San Francisco already has acquired more than $5 million in fine arts since adoption of a 2% art set-aside ordinance in 1969. Similar legislation, at the level of 2%, has been introduced in Sacramento by Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) to provide for art from expenditures for construction on state lands.

Three cities in Orange County actively promote sculpture, murals and other art in public places. A Brea ordinance requires art work in development projects on a formula linked to a project’s total value.

At last count, 19 states and dozens of cities and counties had percentage provisions for the arts, Times writer Cathleen Decker discovered. Beverly Hills has carried it a step further, applying the percentage to private construction as well as public.

“In our community we had the ability to say we’re contributing to the nourishment of the soul,” Donna Ellman, a member of the Beverly Hills City Council, commented.

The potential for Los Angeles has already been demonstrated by its Community Redevelopment Agency, which has won national acclaim for its imaginative use of the percentage-for-art rule in its project on Bunker Hill. Not least of the rewards for its investment in policy is the Museum of Contemporary Art now taking shape--a graceful counterpoint among the office and residential towers.

San Francisco has used its program in an imaginative way, acquiring masterpieces and commissioning special works by distinguished artists to decorate public buildings and public places.

One painting in its collection, “Still Life with Letter” by Richard Diebenkorn, has become so celebrated that it is occasionally lent for exhibition in museums in other parts of the nation. The new terminals at San Francisco International Airport include a painted metal sculpture, “Conquest of Space” by Rufino Tamayo, and an abstract figure cast in bronze by Isamu Noguchi.

As Los Angeles already has discovered with the Community Redevelopment Agency’s arts program on Bunker Hill, this concern for aesthetics is a statement in itself of the value attributed by a city to the richness of its culture and to the quality of its life.