Essential Arts: Why Palm Springs’ Monroe sculpture is a #MeToo Marilyn


The return of a sexist sculpture is wrecking a downtown Palm Springs redevelopment plan. Happy Saturday! I’m art critic Christopher Knight, filling in for columnist Carolina A. Miranda on Essential Arts this week. Arts editor Craig Nakano will catch you up on the week that was, but first let me take you out to the desert.

The 26-foot-high "Forever Marilyn" statue by Seward Johnson returns to Palm Springs in April.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Marilyn moons a museum

In 2016, the city of Palm Springs got serious about moving forward on a downtown redevelopment project that, after decades of planning, would put the local art museum and its Midcentury Modern architectural design at the very heart of the ambitious overhaul.


Then, during a City Council Zoom meeting last November, all five councilmembers turned heel and summarily trashed the plan.

Without so much as a mention of the long-established redevelopment goal, which is on the brink of completion, the City Council instead unanimously agreed to plant a vulgar, misogynistic statue made by a hack artist smack in the middle of the mix. The decision could not have been worse.

The 26-foot-tall colossus shows 1950s movie star Marilyn Monroe, legs splayed, with her skirt blowing up around her waist to expose her panty-clad backside. Designed as a tourist photo op, the statue beckons viewers to saunter in between the late sex symbol’s giant gams, look up her dress and snap a picture for the amusement of the folks back home.

Say cheese!

Opponents of the "Forever Marilyn" sculpture Photoshopped its image to scale on Museum Way
Opponents of the “Forever Marilyn” sculpture Photoshopped its image to scale on Museum Way.
(Committee to Relocate Marilyn)

Tone-deaf doesn’t begin to describe it. You would think that the national movement against sexual violence, which exploded as the crimes committed against actors by a powerful Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, were revealed three years ago, had never happened. “Forever Marilyn,” as the awful sculpture is named, would be better called #MeToo Marilyn.

The Palms Springs Art Museum, a low-slung building designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1974, is emblematic of the Midcentury Modern architecture now synonymous internationally with the desert enclave. Rather than a civic celebration of one of the town’s greatest cultural contributions, as the 2016 plan envisioned, the council opted instead for a civic celebration of the misdemeanor crime of up-skirting.

The statue is slated for installation late next month. Incredibly, #MeToo Marilyn, her body posed tilting slightly forward, will even be positioned to moon the museum. How this travesty came to pass is hard to say.

The switch was the brainchild of Palm Springs Resorts, businesspeople in the hotel and restaurant industry who lobby the city on tourism issues. They first brought the statue to town in 2012, where it stood in a vacant downtown lot for two years, lighting up social media.


Last year they petitioned the city to allow them to bring it back and install it in the center of that critically important redevelopment zone. When the council agreed, P.S. Resorts bought the thing — reportedly for a million dollars. They’ll drop another $100,000 on the installation.

Redevelopment in downtown Palm Springs has been through seemingly endless revisions since the end of the last century, when an enormous shopping mall gobbling up a big chunk of Palm Canyon Drive, the town’s primary thoroughfare, went belly up. A decade later, the Great Recession hit the city especially hard, with tourism numbers slumping and real estate values plummeting. Recovery lagged badly.

E. Stewart Williams' Midcentury Modern design for the Palm Springs Art Museum was to be the redevelopment focus.
(Lance Gerber)

Community input was sought on earlier downtown plans, and designs were revised. In 2011, voters handily passed a 1% increase in sales tax to pay for redevelopment. By 2016, a smart plan was in place for the vicinity of the now-demolished mall.

Building on a 2009 idea, it called for an open street to create a view corridor leading two short blocks due west, from heavily pedestrian Palm Canyon Drive to the Palm Springs Art Museum, with the magnificent San Jacinto mountains as an imposing backdrop. A two-acre public park, designed by able landscape architect Mark Rios, responsible for the successful renovation of the Music Center Plaza and Grand Park in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, is under construction adjacent to the street. Completion is expected by August.

Williams’ museum building, long hidden behind the hulking mall, was intended to emerge as a civic emblem of the Midcentury Modernism that had come to represent the city. (Modernism Week, an architecture and design festival, has grown from a modest 2006 launch for a few hundred people into an annual 10-day extravaganza with attendance now surpassing 160,000.) Rios’ park design, in plantings and organization, defers to the museum, which is discussed 17 times in the 83-page Downtown Specific Plan as its focus.

Deference to midcentury design. Or not

Williams’ building is described as “iconic,” intended to be seen “standing alone as a landmark.” The plan requires that everything in the redevelopment tract “shall defer to the presence of the adjacent Palm Springs Art Museum.”

Palm Springs Downtown Park, designed by Mark Rios, is under construction.

How important is the view corridor? Since proposed a dozen years ago, the name of the short new thoroughfare has bounced between Main Street and Museum Way, which is what it’s called now.

Then, the tourism lobbyists struck. Palm Springs Resorts petitioned the city to close Museum Way and stick #MeToo Marilyn in the middle of the blocked street.

There had been earlier discussions of putting the statue in the adjacent park — although project notes pointedly say, “or another sculpture,” suggesting unspecified worries about the offensive hunk of junk. An early Rios park rendering shows #MeToo Marilyn tucked away in the corner farthest from the museum and looking south, her backside facing a parking garage.

Palm Springs Downtown Park, once considered as a site for "Forever Marilyn," is adjacent to Museum Way.

Deafening indifference

Over-scaled for the site — the statue is the height of a two- or three-story building — the figure’s billowing, windswept skirt will block the sightline from Palm Canyon Drive to Williams’ ostensibly iconic, standalone landmark of Midcentury Modern architecture. In the other direction, departing museum visitors will be greeted by her exposed behind as they descend the stairs and head into town. Photoshopped mockups made to scale by opponents of the plan demonstrate the erasure.

Virtually none of this was discussed during the November Zoom meeting. It was also simply assumed that public rather than private land would be an ideal location.

Not a single councilmember expressed unabashed enthusiasm for the statue before unanimously supporting the new location. Neither the council nor a remarkably shoddy background staff report even mentions the guiding 2016 document being upended by the plan.

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Lisa Middleton, the councilmember in whose district the behemoth will be erected, said the art was not to her taste, but she was willing to give it a shot.

The aesthetic question of “personal taste” is a common dodge in public art discussions, but here it is entirely irrelevant. The work’s sculptor, J. Seward Johnson, who died last year at 89, was very rich; an heir to the Johnson & Johnson medical fortune, he self-funded production and public display of his absurd work. Everyone enjoys a hobby, but his sculpture is unrepresented in any significant museum collections. Expert consensus regards him as an artist of zero achievement.

Instagrammable embarrassment

No one at the art museum next door was consulted for the City Council staff report, although the sculpture would be its new neighbor. (The current museum director, Louis Grachos, and multiple former directors and curators have publicly registered horror. Grachos has resigned, effective this summer, but has not identified the controversy as a cause.) Shockingly, the city’s own public art commission was not asked for an opinion.

Am I wrong to speculate that it wasn’t queried because city staff knew full well what the answer would be? An answer that would be hard to wave away in their report?

The city bent over backward to accommodate the awful scheme, even as it ignored established redevelopment goals and winced at the offending sculpture. Why? My simple answer: The tourism lobby wanted it.

Tourism is fundamental to the Palm Springs economy. According to the local convention and visitors bureau, it is the largest single employer in the area.

“I do think we need interactive works of public art that are Instagrammable — are going to drive tourism on social media” is how Mayor Christy Gilbert Holstege explained the council decision.

The scourge of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter looms in the background. The leap from image proliferation on social media to a definable increase in tourism was made — even though not a shred of hard data backs up the claim.

And the city didn’t ask for any.

When I did, all I got from Palm Springs Resorts was an accounting of nearly $800,000 in free advertising calculated from the social media frenzy when the statue first arrived in 2012. (It had been a recent scandal in Chicago, where it was eventually run out of town.) That number was juxtaposed with rising tourism figures in subsequent years.

No mention was made of the big, ever-expanding draw of events like Modernism Week, the Palm Springs International Film Festival or the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. To think that anyone will travel to Palm Springs inspired by a burning desire to get a gander at #MeToo Marilyn’s giant panties is bizarre.

Memo to Palm Springs: Times have changed

I’m just one person, but I first saw the sculpture on my cellphone screen the first time around, and my immediate reaction was, “Ugh. What is wrong with Palm Springs?” I wrote a column applauding its departure from the city.

The translation of social media clicks into tourism dollars, however, is simply embraced as an article of faith by the civic powers that be. Perhaps they see all publicity as good publicity, but I wouldn’t count on it for #MeToo Marilyn now.

The country has changed meaningfully since the statue was first here nearly a decade ago. After the epic Women’s March on Washington, two presidential impeachments, a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, an attempted election theft built on a racist Big Lie and deadly pandemic exposure of all manner of societal inequities, social justice issues are today squarely on the public radar. As Confederate monuments come down across the country, a blatantly sexist sculpture snickering at women in general — and a tragic Hollywood actor in particular — is unlikely to be widely cheered as it goes up in a tourist town.

Clothing designer Trina Turk and architecture preservationist Chris Menrad are among locals who have banded together to form the Committee to Relocate Marilyn. A GoFundMe page was launched to hire a lawyer to sue the city and stop the project. (Having met its $50,000 goal in less than two weeks, it’s upped the ante to $75,000.) No suit has yet been filed, but it is expected to focus on claims of faulty city processes around the street closure where the statue will stand.

Best would be not installing the shameful misogynist lark anywhere at all. But stopping it on Museum Way is essential. The grinding yearlong COVID-19 pandemic seems finally to be pointed in the direction of winding down, but if the statue goes up, I plan to remain socially distant.

And now for other news ...

The reopening of California’s cultural sector shifted into a higher gear, as evidenced by a list of California museum openings that grows daily. More than 10 major institutions have flung open their doors, and more than a dozen have confirmed reopening dates in the weeks to come. Among the first biggies out of the gate here in L.A. will be the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The beloved Ojai Music Festival, which after 74 years had to cancel for the first time in 2020, will be back. By postponing from June to September, Jessica Gelt reports, the festival buys more time for concert-goers to get vaccinated — and for organizers to line up talent. They’re off to a promising start with the festival debuts of Americana musician Rhiannon Giddens, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and violinist Miranda Cuckson.

The outdoor art biennial known as Desert X is moving forward, but not with a smoke installation by Judy Chicago. She talks with Times arts writer Deborah Vankin about a failed effort to relocate her work from the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. Chicago says the brouhaha over the work also has jeopardized her piece for the de Young museum in San Francisco. As for the rest of Desert X, The Times review says it feels thin.

Zahrah Alghamdi's "What Lies Behind the Walls," the standout work in Desert X.
Zahrah Alghamdi’s “What Lies Behind the Walls,” the standout work in Desert X.
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Theater contemplates a return to ‘normal’

All the talk of reopening doesn’t have everyone rushing out to buy tickets — not yet at least. Theater critic Charles McNulty strikes a nerve with many by writing a piece headlined, “Museums and movie theaters are reopening, but you won’t see me in one. Not until summer.” When the nation is so close to vaccinating all age groups, why risk reopening too soon?

It’s a discussion we’ve been putting to readers, most recently in a callout to those of you who work in theater. When — and how — should live theater in L.A. reopen? Under what circumstances, and with what new rules? Tell us what you think.

Oscars, schmoscars

Forget the Grammys and Academy Awards nominations. It was a big week for architecture, and Carolina A. Miranda was all over it — first with news of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s win of the Pritzker Prize.

Even Pritzker haters had to like the selection of socially minded architects whose projects include public housing and whose motto is: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!” (With an exclamation point, no less!)

But Miranda also points out that this year’s prize — following Black Lives Matter uprisings and a pandemic that laid bare social inequities — comes from a jury that contains no Black members and an organization that has named no winners from Africa. It also awards individuals, Miranda says, at a time when more of us recognize architecture as a collaborative field. “The world is changing,” she writes. “Architecture’s ‘Nobel’ has yet to catch up.”

A wide view of a '60s-era housing block is seen after a renovation that added terraces
A 1960s social housing development in Bordeaux, France, renovated in 2017 by Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal to add terraces.
(Philippe Ruault)

Miranda also has an engaging Q&A with Mabel Wilson, who helped to organize the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” looking at how systemic racism has shaped architecture.

And if that weren’t enough, Miranda also checks in with Demar Matthews, who has been developing a concept he has dubbed “Unearthing a Black Aesthetic.” Driven by the dearth of American architecture that is “pure Black,” Matthews hopes to build an accessory dwelling unit — an ADU or granny flat — in the backyard of Watts community activist Janine Watkins. You can help the effort here.

A rendering shows a house with with a textured surface of geometric patterns with a roof that comes to a sharp point
A rendering of the “R Cloud House” by Demar Matthews, who is exploring the idea of Black architecture.
(OffTop Design)

Final words

Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, composer Richard Danielpour and UCLA student singers were among the Grammy winners in classical categories.

Listings coordinator Matt Cooper compiled 18 bits of culture for your viewing consideration this weekend, led by an operatic tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And in a week marked by the Atlanta-area killings of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, how those lives are honored and how the violence is condemned are questions permeating seemingly every corner of the culture.

The rising incidents of hate against Asian Americans have generated shock and outrage among some, but to others — namely Asian Americans themselves — this is nothing new. Discrimination and violence have long been painful realities of the American immigrant experience. It’s ingrained in the personal histories and family stories of the people who perhaps teach your children, administer your COVID-19 shot, deliver your mail — or edit your newsletters.

Here’s hoping that more of these life stories — whether tragic, comedic, inspiring or absurd — reach our stages, screens, hearts and minds.