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Public Image : Agency’s funding of new artworks is just one of many signs that Los Angeles is continuing to tighten its grip on the title of mural capital of the world

When it comes to exposure, artist Wallace (Rip) Cronk thinks his latest work has it all over anything by Vincent Van Gogh.

“Even a very famous painting won’t be seen by the number of people who will see this,” Cronk said as he worked on “Rebirth of Venice” one recent Saturday. “Not as many people see ‘Starry Night’ as will see this.”

Cronk doesn’t claim that his work is superior to Van Gogh’s. Just more visible. Certainly it’s larger. The painting, which takes up the side of a two-story building by the Venice boardwalk, is one of nine murals being completed under a pilot program between the city of Los Angeles and the nonprofit Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC).

Called Neighborhood Pride, the program will be expanded in its second year to fund 15 new murals. It is one of several signs that Los Angeles has tightened its grip on the title of mural capital of the world. Efforts are under way to restore fading works, and a map and guidebook to 260 murals has been published.

Trouble spots still exist. Several works throughout the city have disappeared, painted over or torn down by property owners. Artists have lawsuits pending in two such cases. In another instance, a building owner has refused to permit restoration of a mural, and graffiti remains a persistent problem.

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But muralists still love L. A. Last year, when Venice-based SPARC received a $250,000 city contract for the Neighborhood Pride project, 90 artists applied for the nine commissions.

“We have the largest murals program in the country,” said Joe B. Rodriguez, executive director of SPARC.

The 14-year-old agency will receive $405,383 for the program in the fiscal year that started July 1. Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city Cultural Affairs Department, said he hopes to see SPARC receive even larger contracts in years to come.

“The murals are like a cultural emblem of the city,” Nodal said. He estimates that there are 1,000 murals in Los Angeles, more than any other city worldwide.

Cronk’s “Rebirth of Venice” will be immediately familiar to hundreds of thousands of people who have strolled or roller-skated the Venice boardwalk. At the western end of Windward Avenue in Venice, a few steps from Ocean Front Walk, the artist is finishing a replacement for “Venice on the Half Shell.”

The original hung for seven years on the Venice Pavilion along the boardwalk. A parody of the Botticelli painting, “Birth of Venus,” its central figure is a woman roller-skating. Cronk’s girlfriend, Linda Foster, was the model. The original has been damaged by weather and graffiti. Done on plywood, it was removed and placed in storage last year.

The artist said he has planned for the inevitable graffiti in the new work. The part of the mural depicting the walkway, an area from the ground to a height of six feet, is splatter painted, making graffiti less distinguishable and easier to cover up. In the rest of the mural, Cronk has designed shadows or outlines around most of the figures. Graffiti will blend into these outlined images with a little retouching, he said.

As with all commissions in the Neighborhood Pride program, Cronk receives $7,000 and is furnished a five-member crew of apprentices. The youths, ages 14 to 22, are paid minimum wage and work 15 to 20 hours a week for about three months. SPARC also pays for paint and other materials, bringing the cost of each mural to about $25,000.

Juan Burguno, 22, said he hopes to attend art school and has learned much from helping Cronk. “Using an airbrush was new, and I picked up lots of techniques,” he said.

While the Neighborhood Pride program, which uses funds from the mayor’s office, is new, SPARC has commissioned murals with money from other city departments. Judy Baca, a SPARC co-founder, estimates the total number to be 250. Baca was the principal artist on the city’s largest mural, the “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” done on a concrete side of the Tujunga Wash in North Hollywood.

Not everyone views the SPARC commissions as a valuable addition to the city’s murals scene.

“I hate the idea that people are waiting around for a program, and if there’s no program, they don’t do a mural,” said Kent Twitchell, who, like Baca, is one of the city’s best-known muralists.

“I like to see people go out and find a wall and just do a mural,” he said, adding that it’s not hard to find an owner who will permit a building to be painted. “That’s what makes it a truly important indigenous folk art. It doesn’t cost that much. For 50 or 60 bucks in paint, you can do a small mural.”

Older murals increasingly face the problems of fading and destruction. Twitchell has sued a building owner who slapped white paint over “Old Woman of the Freeway,” a mural of a woman with a flowing, snake-like shawl that was visible from the Hollywood Freeway. The owner hoped to sell the space for advertising to an athletic shoe company, Twitchell and others said, but the deal fell through.

Amy L. Neiman, an attorney in the Century City office of Folger & Levin, is representing both Twitchell and a group of East Los Angeles artists whose block-wall mural was torn down by the property owner. She said the lawsuits cite the California Art Preservation Act, which requires a property owner to give an artist a chance to remove an artwork before it is destroyed. Neiman and others say there are chemical processes that permit murals to be peeled off, even if they are painted directly onto walls.

Santa Monica artist Tom Van Sant won what he termed a considerable settlement by suing under the preservation act after his mural inside a downtown Los Angeles building was damaged and covered up during a remodeling project.

“The destruction is a significant problem,” Neiman said. “Artists don’t know what their rights are, and property owners don’t know what their responsibilities are.”

She said the state law probably would not apply in another situation: the refusal of a building owner to permit restoration.

In Venice, at Dell Avenue and Venice Boulevard South, a mural called “The Jaya” is chipped and fading. Designed by Emily Winters and painted in 1975 by a group of women, it depicts the encroachment of high-rise development on an idyllic Venice. SPARC runs a mural restoration program and has offered $500 toward refurbishment.

Winters wants to do the work. But Peter Williams, a photographer who bought the building 2 1/2 years ago, says he doesn’t like the mural and won’t give his consent.

“I understand the mural has historical significance and is an emotional trigger for some portion of the people who live here,” Williams said. “I don’t want to have it destroyed and I don’t want to restore it either. The subject of the mural is strongly political. I have taken an informal poll of my neighbors. Sixty to 70% say it’s not very attractive, and the others say if you touch that mural, there’s going to be trouble.”

Rodriguez, of SPARC, said the group heads off problems of graffiti and offended residents by holding community meetings before going ahead with a mural. “We create the idea of neighborhood ownership,” he said. “I don’t like plop art, where you take a sculpture, for instance, put it in a community and say, ‘Enjoy it.’ ”

Mark L. Brown, an assistant city attorney who handles matters for the Cultural Affairs Department, said a task force of city officials and community members has discussed passage of an ordinance that would protect murals. A draft of the measure has yet to be completed.

No official count exists of the number of murals lost to fading or destruction. Baca said she has done about 20 murals and has lost perhaps three. (A degree of permanence will be a side benefit in her current project, “World Wall,” being painted on seven large panels of canvas. Baca plans to show the work worldwide, mounting it a movable wall of chain-link. Two finished panels are on display at the SPARC gallery.)

Twitchell said his murals do not fade because he uses the correct paint. Cronk said he expects his murals to disappear, that in all artworks the freshness of ideas fades, and it is appropriate that the paint does also.

Members of the 2-year-old L.A. Murals Conservancy extend the life of murals by washing them occasionally. The private, nonprofit group has applied for grants to begin financing restorations. Joy Nuell, executive director, believes that the city’s estimate of a mural total is high.

“There have been as many as a 1,000, but not that many have existed at one time,” she said. “Some are dying all the time.”

In April the conservancy published a guide and map to 260 murals. Most entries are accompanied by a description of the work. The guides cost $2 and are available at Dutton’s in Brentwood, Small World Books on the Venice boardwalk and a few other stores.


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