Who will lead the art movement?

When is the city going to face up to the disaster that is Thad Phillips?Phillips may be good at running the city's Community Services department, and indeed Downey citizens have stood on the floor of the city council to praise and thank him for his help on behalf of their interests. But his managing the Art in Public Places program is another matter entirely. And when he stood in front of the council last week to say, in defense of dissolving the program, "Art is subjective," you could almost hear the bones crack from stupefied jaws dropping in unison throughout the auditorium. Art is subjective, in certain respects. If it weren't, Van Gogh would have managed to sell more than one painting in his lifetime. But as a sweeping statement, Phillips' assertion would be news indeed to every museum and gallery in the world, including Vatican City; every serious curator, collector and university program out there; and would condemn Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Manet, Cezanne, Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, and any number of other greats to the trivial evanescence of Snooki's lip gloss. Phillips' report continued: "[since art is] often based on statements or expressions of personal opinion or feeling, a public art project might benefit from a review and approval from the City Council directly…" Translation: I don't want this job anymore. The problem is that Phillips hasn't wanted the job for quite some time, if ever, and hasn't held a meeting since January of 2010, a year-and-a-half ago. Even the Councilmen, ever bent on the ritual salutations to each other befitting a Feydeau farce, were momentarily taken aback. "Why haven't you met for so long?" asked one. This isn't just a story about one peevish bureaucrat and an ineffectual committee, one of whose three accomplishments is referred to as "the Greek god by the car wash." The Downey Art in Public Places ordinance was passed in early 2006 to promote "the aesthetic enhancement and enrichment of the community by the inclusion of fine art throughout the City…" Implicit in this measure was that something was happening to the spirit and vitality of Downey that, beyond the normal civic boosterism stuff, was hard to pin down, and that the re-establishment of culture could give us a collective breath of fresh air and a modicum of identity. Once, the city had its own movie theaters, a symphony woven deeply into the social fabric, a notable children's theater and art gallery, a civic light opera and a fine 748 seat theater that hosted grand opera, ballet, experimental theater and musical appearances of the likes of Count Basie and his orchestra. Now? Just drive around town. You won't see much. One non-indigenous cineplex devoted mostly to the popcorn dreck churned out by money-hungry Hollywood. A tiny art gallery that's just reopening after years of darkness over a hissy fit among middle-aged women. The Downey Theater still locked shut most of the year-though we'll have to see what Venuetech books in. You hear people, especially young people and outward-looking adults, complain that there's nothing to do after sundown. The AIPP, like Venuetech, has represented the city's effort to do something about it. Revenue comes from a 1% levy on new commercial development. At first there wasn't much, $5000, according to Harold Tseklenis, who was one of five members on the committee (now the fund is up to somewhere between $376,000-$378,000). Phillips acted as staff conduit to the city. Initially, they met once a month. They didn't have the resources then to appeal to nationally established artists, which is part of their mandate. Tseklenis argued for a sculpture garden in a central city plaza that would replace the parking lot behind the Embassy Suites hotel, near the library and city hall. This was a more ambitious vision than anyone had bargained for, especially Phillips. The meetings became strung out. Phillips reportedly became increasingly brusque and unresponsive. Two members quit, another moved out of the city. Two called for meetings, only to be rebuffed without a word. Time dragged on without result, which effectively doomed the program. Andrew Wahlquist, who is making a concerted effort to organize a Downey Arts Coalition, stood up before the council to lament the committee's lack of accomplishment, observing that Downey's arts organizations are dying and that the city's effort to involve the public in the arts is "going in the wrong direction." Later, in an e-mail, he defended Phillips, saying "Basically he sees the main function of the committee only to approve/disapprove the projects presented to them [by the developers]….once it's at the council level, you have a whole other group approving and disapproving…so why not simplify it?" Also, there seemed to be some confusion about whether the committee could reach out to artists on its own, or exceed the scope of its charter. All that may be true, but it still doesn't excuse Phillips stalling, then disbanding the committee after treating its members rudely. If he didn't like the way the process was going, he should have said so instead of ignoring the issues and letting the program grind to a halt out of inertia, then declare it useless. [For the record, I tried to call him last Friday at three, to find him gone for the day, and then this Tuesday around noon, to find him out on vacation.] Now the fate of the arts in Downey is back in the hands of the council, where it doesn't belong. None of its members has any demonstrable knowledge or expertise in arts management or administration, or even an express definition of what art is. Together they've wisely avoided meddling in the programs the city has sponsored-that's why they drafted the Art in Public Places program as a new, if modest, beginning based on someone else's knowledgeable opinion. But there is no AIPP as of last week, and you have the city attorney and council members almost imploring Wahlquist and any other arts people in the community to bring them ideas. From remote jungle tribes to the international community of urban sophisticates, there is no people in the world that does not make use of music, dance, storytelling and visual iconography in interpreting the experience and mystery of being alive. Not to have these things in your living, immediate world tells you something about yourself. For Downey not to have them tells you something about Downey. The city leadership, bless them, acknowledges the need. The question is, who will lead us? So far, we're not doing well. Lawrence Christon is an author, journalist and arts critic.

********** Published: June 2, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 7