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Opinion

Community Commentary: Wyland only wanted money for education efforts

We all know about crab mentality. You put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, and when one tries to escape the others, they try to pull it down, rather than allowing it to get free.

When Wyland, the famous environmental artist, lent one of his signature works of art to the California Coastal Commission for a new license plate 16 years ago to fund environmental awareness programs in the state, I’m sure the last thing on his mind were attempts by the “friends of the Coastal Commission” to pull his years of environmental outreach efforts down.

Since 1993, the artist and his Wyland Foundation have donated thousands of dollars to support environmental education teachers; hosted mayor’s challenge competitions for water conservation across Southern California and south Florida; toured with a 1,000-square-foot clean water mobile learning center to educate 200,000 students in the last three years; created interactive water conservation maze exhibitions; hosted environmental education events in every state; and held art clinics for more than one million kids.

The foundation chugged along nicely, thanks to a relatively modest stream of public and private contributions. In 2008, however, in the midst of the U.S. economic meltdown, the foundation, like many others, had to scramble for resources. A logical request was made to the Coastal Commission, which by this time had raised more than $40 million from sales of its Wyland-designed whale tail license plate.

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Ten percent of these funds benefit environmental education. After years of lending the image to the state of California, Wyland made the apparently grave mistake of asking for a portion of the plate’s proceeds to help fund environmental education programs through his foundation (https://www.wylandfoundation.org) on an ongoing basis. Or, more precisely, he asked the commission to support the type of programs that the whale tail plate was designed to fund.

Then the accusations started to fly. How could this rich and famous artist ask for support from a poor, beleaguered and troubled state like California?

Wyland made the request, starting with 20% of net proceeds going forward to support environmental education program initiatives. In American culture, asking for something in return for providing something of value is a generally accepted practice, often referred to as negotiation.

Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas quickly offered the foundation an unbelievably generous $100,000 a year for 10 years — an offer that was quickly leaked to The Associated Press with the implication that the Wyland Foundation was holding the commission hostage. The commission waited for the predictable public backlash against Wyland, then rescinded the offer two days later because of it.

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That’s fine. Was the commission’s offer genuine? Or a carefully orchestrated PR gambit? Playing with an agency as powerful as the California Coastal Commission is a big boy’s game, and we accept the consequences of that.

Not a single penny from the whale tail license plate that Wyland created and generously lent to the Coastal Commission was ever intended to go to Wyland himself. The only time we ever asked for a dime was to underwrite a fraction of the cost of building a traveling exhibition about human impacts on marine habitats. That was a $20,000 grant.

It’s not chump change, but the maze cost several hundred thousand dollars to run. Our Clean Water Mobile Learning Center cost more than $500,000, not including the annual operational costs. These programs take resources to make them successful.

Maybe all of this is a shining example of no good deed ever going unpunished. The state elected to stop issuing the Wyland license plate and the artist was summarily brushed aside. A contest was held to find a new artist to paint the same plate. We still hear echoes of “greed” from people who’ve only heard the commission’s side of this story.

STEVE CREECH is project director for the Laguna Beach-based nonprofit Wyland Foundation.


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