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Hanging Around : Art: Officials have brought an end to the Municipal Sculpture Garden, but the artists’ works stayed in place up to two years after the leases ran out.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Municipal Sculpture Garden was dead. Dead as the rocks atop Woods Davy’s “Jatay.” Dead as the aluminum panels in Jay Willis’s “Billboard.” Dead as the fiberglass of Hal Meltzer’s “Beverly Hills Melon.”

Only no one knew it. The works were still arrayed along Santa Monica Boulevard, long after the appointed time had passed for them to return to their makers.

But the Municipal Sculpture Garden, intended to be a showcase for art loaned to the city, was no more.

The mayor and the vice mayor put a stake through its heart in the polite confines of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

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They sat in on a meeting of the city’s Fine Arts Committee and did the deed over tea and scones earlier this month, explaining that it was time to thank the artists and have them take their creations out of Beverly Gardens Park.

“Not everybody appreciates contemporary art or culture, and it’s the responsibility of those who make decisions to bring art that’s enjoyable to the most amount of people,” Mayor Vicki Reynolds said after the Dec. 18 meeting.

It was not “Jatay,” “Billboard” or “Melon” that raised the wrath of the Philistines, as some artists saw their critics.

Instead it was the Ghost of Controversy Past, in the mournful shape of “Moon Dial,” that loomed over the proceedings like Marley’s Ghost.

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It gave the art mavens a Dickens of a time.

A rusty array of buoys, chains and window frames, “Moon Dial” spooked the neighbors so much that the city made sculptor George Herms take it out at as soon its contract expired, 18 months after it was installed. It was gone by November, 1989.

“People nearby found it displeasing and it was difficult,” Reynolds said. “ ‘Moon Dial’ was years ago and we haven’t had a hue and cry for the others coming out, but they are coming out because their contracts came up.”

In fact, the contracts for the other pieces came up a while ago: Willis’ expired in June, 1989, Davy’s in October, 1989, and Meltzer’s in February. A fourth work, “Clouds,” by Malcolm Susman, was a gift to the city, and apparently will stay.

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Why weren’t the others replaced on time? It’s hard to say.

“It was dilatory,” said Ellen Byrens, a member of the Fine Arts Committee and its chairwoman until May. “They looked nice and we just didn’t get around to doing it.”

The seven-member committee, whose members are appointed by the City Council, was short of a quorum for much of this year, said Nancy Nebenzahl, the new chairwoman, and it was hard to get much done.

There was political fallout from the angry protests over “Moon Dial,” and the committee was left without a strong, guiding hand when Michael Cart resigned as the city’s chief librarian, a job in which he also headed the city’s cultural affairs.

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“Our hands were tied for quite a while,” Nebenzahl said. “After ‘Moon Dial,’ I don’t think we had as much freedom to just pick and install. Everything has to be approved by the City Council, which is the way it should work.”

There was also something of a communication problem, according to Vice Mayor Bernard J. Hecht, who acted as a liaison between the elected officials and the arts committee.

“The council made it clear once before, and the time before last, that it’s got to go out,” Hecht said of the statues in the park. At the latest meeting, he said, “we explained it to them once again.”

Despite its problems, the committee, which is about to be elevated to the status of a full-fledged city commission, came in for praise from at least one of the artists. He did not spare other residents, however.

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“They’ve all been wonderful and nice about it, but in the city of Beverly Hills, it seems that if they (residents) have something bad to say, they’re the ones who ‘crank’ (complain) first,” said Meltzer, the creator of “Beverly Hills Melon.”

“This removal of the art is a real indication . . . that really cultured people don’t live in Beverly Hills,” he said.

Davy was not available for comment, but Willis said he was amused to learn that “Billboard” would soon be taken down.

Willis, a professor at USC, said “Billboard” really was meant to be a sort of advertisement for his work, and that he had won some commissions as a result.

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“I think everyone always hopes that somewhere along the line there’ll be a public uprising and people saying, ‘Gee, we can’t live without that thing--let’s buy it,’ ” he said.

But Reynolds said she has seen no such groundswell.

“The feeling we get from the community is that they’d rather not have art in the gardens . . . and I think the committee agrees,” she said.

While Santa Monica Boulevard is out, the mayor said the city is looking for other places to display loaned art.

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One such piece, Baile Oakes’ “Spiral of Life,” already occupies a strip of parkway near Burton Way and Rexford Drive.

The arts panel is also responsible for a separate program under which developers are required to install publicly visible art in new buildings, or to pay a 1% fee for a fine arts fund.

Using some of that money, the city recently bought a Charles Arnoldi work for permanent installation at the Civic Center.


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