Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

12:49pm |For better and/or for worse, usually when a piece of public art is installed in Long Beach, it's here for the long haul. But that's not what happened recently in California Heights.

A metal sculpture by Richard Turner was installed by Long Beach Transit late last month at a bus stop on the corner of Orange and Wardlow Avenues, the project's $20,000 price tag coming out of grant for the meta-project "Urban Forestry."

Usually such installations come off without a hitch, with more people pleased than displeased, but no one making much of a fuss one way or the other.

But that's not what happed this time. According to John Glaza, interim director of the Arts Council for Long Beach (which collaborated with Long Beach Transit on the installation), within a week he received calls from Seventh District Councilmember James Johnson's office and from Long Beach Transit, calls informing him they had been "inundated with complaints" about the piece.

"We've done a lot of these projects with Long Beach Transit, a lot, and never had this happen," Glaza says. "Usually the community calls us and thanks us. […] This is the first time [such a negative response] has happened."

Much of the outcry focused not on the artistic merit of the piece itself, but the fact that its placement obscured the view of one of the area's staple pieces of art: the California Heights mural.

"There was significant community concern in California Heights due to the fact the new art piece was blocking the Cal Heights mural at the same location," says Johnson, "as well as a lack of community outreach."

Both Glaza and Kevin Lee, marketing manager of Long Beach Transit, regretfully admit that their organizations neglected to engage either Johnson's office or the California Heights Neighborhood Association in discussions regarding the appropriateness of the location for Turner's artwork.

Glaza notes that historically neighborhood associations have not been engaged in making such decisions. "But they need to be," he says. "I see myself as a community person, so I'm a little embarrassed that it came to this."

"We've never had much push-back from the community, so this is something that was new to us, "says Lee. "In the future we really need to look at the process and refine it and just make sure that we reach out to the appropriate parties. That's something we're taking away from this."

Glaza says problems with the economy — which have hit the arts hard, as such problems always do — contributed to a climate in which such a perfect storm could take place, as Leslie Markle and his expertise regarding public art is now absent from the process, since his former Arts Council position — director of public art — has been eliminated.

"Quite honestly, I'm not a public-art professional," says Glaza, "and I'm pedaling as fast as I can."

While some community members were discontented not only by the initial placement of Turner's sculpture but also by the piece itself ("It's looks like a sign that should be out in front of a car wash," one resident told me), Glaza and Lee say it will be reinstalled once an appropriate location is determined. And while the portion of the grant for the piece is not district-specific, Councilmember Johnson seems to favor its staying within the Seventh.

"Personally, I think it's an interesting piece of modern art and I believe it would be a welcome addition in a location where it does not block other public art and where there is sufficient community outreach," he says.

The good news in this story is how quickly the Arts Council and Long Beach Transit responded to community concerns: installed on February 24, the piece was gone by March 7.

"We are always really excited to place artwork in Long Beach to celebrate our community and to keep it looking beautiful and vibrant," wrote Lee in a follow-up statement to our interview. "Long Beach Transit has had the opportunity to do this for over 10 years and have had a lot of community support and positive feedback. We apologize that in this historic area at Orange and Wardlow that the piece we placed wasn't a fit for the location. After much concern from residents and the council office, we acted quickly and removed the art from the location. We are currently considering a more ideal place for this particular work of art."

The bad news? Lee says the cost of the installation and removal was $6,000, funds that "will come from federal capital dollars that cannot be used to run the day-to-day operations of our business."

It's a pricey lesson. But at least no one is passing the buck. And there's a side-benefit: the general public now has direct proof of our ability to influence this kind of decision.

Postscript: Want to check out some adventurous bus-stop art that in many cases cities get for free? Go here.

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