by Rick Mercurio
Escondido city officials abruptly demanded the removal of a student-created mural from a private art gallery wall last September. The power of the city to dictate the placement of art on private property, and the manner in which the city exercised this authority, raise troubling questions.
The $3500 mural was the culmination of a program sponsored by the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and the Open Society Foundation. Escondido high school students had been attending intensive workshops during the summers of 2013 and 2014. They explored their personal stories about the complex realities of immigration, for both foreign and native-born residents. The goal was to create possibilities for community engagement, and to build bridges within Escondido’s social fabric.
Jon Lowenstein, an award winning Chicago-based photographer, provided his guidance and artistic talent. The students gathered their photos and their stories, then worked with a design expert from the Netherlands to compile a photo documentary. This was made into a book, entitled “Escondido in Escondido.” The book was then transferred onto a horizontal adhesive vinyl mural 110 feet long, and about two feet high.
The mural and book were celebrated with a release party on Sept. 24, 2014, at the Escondido Municipal Art Gallery at 262 E. Grand. The mural had been placed on the exterior wall of the Gallery along Juniper St. at eye level. The work was designed to be participatory, inviting passers-by to add their own stories and reactions to the white space that surrounded the photos and printing.
By the next day, the mural had been taken down.
Escondido steps in
The Municipal Gallery, which had collaborated with the student workshops, received two emails from Escondido city staff, according to Gallery Manager Chris Moats. At least one email was from Joyce Masterson, Director of Economic Development and Community Relations.
Masterson wrote that the mural must be removed by the end of the business day, because it had not been approved by the City’s Appearance Committee. According to Moats, the email said that the mural “does not put forth the best image of Escondido, especially considering that the following night is the final Cruisin’ Grand of the season.”
Although most of the added written comments were personal and positive, a few included foul language and derogatory remarks about police. The Gallery had spray painted over the blatantly offensive comments, while preserving the rest, but ironically the paint over may have added to the perception of vandalism.
Moats was not happy about the abruptness of the decision. “It was hurtful that we were not given an option to fix it,” she said. “The email had a threatening tone, like a big NO.”
The City cited its mural policy, which among other requirements, demanded the approval of the property owner. The City contacted the owner, who apparently did not want the mural. The Gallery’s executive director, Wendy Wilson, was out of town on vacation. So the City contacted the chairman of the Gallery Board, Woody Woodaman, who decided to take down the mural rather than have the City do it. In the process of taking it down, it was destroyed. Woodaman did not respond to the Alianza’s request for his perspective.
Masterson defended her decision. “The mural was defaced with pink and purple paint,” she said. “It looked trashed. The City had sent the Gallery its policy at the time of the (2013)Amgen event,” she insisted. “ We were not trying to determine artistic expression. We would have been okay if they had taken it down, then gone through the approval process, then put it back up.”
The Appearance Committee
The City body that had life and death authority over this mural is called the Appearance Committee. It is comprised of representatives from several City departments, including risk management, engineering, public works, maintenance, planning and engineering. Its creation was an internal decision, made by City Manager Clay Phillips, according to Jay Petrek, Assistant Planning Director. “There are no written guidelines for the committee,” Petrek said. “It is more like a meeting of the minds.”
Petrek said that the committee would not have judged artistic quality, but rather looked at maintenance or anti-graffiti requirements. The City is given zoning authority by the state of California, giving cities sweeping power to determine the exterior appearance of private property, even color. Petrek said that restrictions are even stricter in downtown Escondido. “The City conducts design review, approving materials and architectural features.”
Escondido has an appointed Public Art Commission, whose members have some degree of expertise. This body recommends publicly funded art in the City. Their talents are apparently not tapped by the Appearance Committee when it makes decisions regarding artistic expression on private property.
Voices of Dissent
Everard Meade, the director of the USD Trans Border Institute, which technically owned the mural, was not pleased with the City’s approach. “The students who created the mural were very proud of it,” he said. When he saw that it had been removed he called the City’s graffiti hotline and the Maintenance Dept. “They told me no complaints had been received, and they did not know why it had been taken down. Then I spoke with Joyce Masterson.”
“She said we needed a permit,” Meade said. “She also said in no uncertain terms that she found it unappealing, that it didn’t set the proper image for downtown. She took one look at it, saw some writing and splotched paint, and made a snap decision. I strongly suspect they didn’t like it and they were looking for a way to take it down before the Cruisin’ Grand event.”
Meade continued: “The supreme irony is that what the City branded as unsightly were the mural’s features that most excited the students who created it—interactive, personal, participatory.”
Meade believes the City missed a teachable moment for the students. “This may have been a circumstance of miscommunication between the Gallery and the City, but the urgency to take it down was false,” he said. “They should have cut a longer leash for Escondido’s high school kids, who came from diverse socioeconomic and political backgrounds.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better project for Escondido, with its Art Center and its reputation as an art hub,” Meade said. “Lowenstein is a famous photo artist, and the City made no attempt to contact him, much less the students. The City was heavy-handed and reactive, and they should have made a better effort to treat the students with respect.”
Wendy Barker, executive director of the Escondido History Center, believes that the mural’s participatory art theme was a good idea. “We want our citizens to take an active role,” she said. “We are a country of immigrants, and there is already too much divisiveness in the city. Creativity is a good thing, and this mural was intended to be temporary anyway.
“When I passed the mural for the first time, I wished I had a pen so I could have added my own comments” Barker added. “Escondido has been trying to promote art rather than stifle it.”