The program funds artistic works and creative projects in Santa Monica

By Bridgette M. Redman

Local artist Ginoflo transforms k-rail concrete safety barriers outside of Kafe K on Main Street into vibrant works of art.
Credit: Santa Monica Cultural Affairs

Sometimes to go forward it can be inspirational to look back.

It’s what the City of Santa Monica is doing to provide work for artists hard hit by the pandemic. The Cultural Affairs section of the Economic Recovery Task Force is modeling a new program, the Art of Recovery, on the Federal Art Project—a part of the Works Progress Administration, a program that gave work to artists from 1935 to 1943.

This New Deal-like program will fund artistic works and creative projects all around Santa Monica. It is a program that the Cultural Affairs manager for the city believes will help show residents how the arts are a vital part of people’s lives. The projects began rolling out in October 2020 and will continue throughout 2021.

“The arts have such a tremendous power to impact our lives and make our lives better,” said Shannon Daut, who is also the spokesperson for the project. “Through this project, we want to really own as a city the role of arts in our recovery, and moving forward, making sure we are really valuing the contributions of artists.”

Sculptures and painting launched arts program

Two examples of projects took place on Main Street and the Santa Monica Pier. On Main Street, several local artists painted vibrant works of art on the k-rail concrete safety dividers lining the al fresco dining and retail area. There are 8 to 10 installations with multiple artists along different blocks and not every k-rail will be painted.

On the Santa Monica Pier, Los Angeles-based artist Ricardo Soltero created larger-than-life sculptures of La Catrina to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which were on display October 31 through November 2. Soltero, who was born in Nayarit, Mexico, has had his Dia de los Muertos work displayed all around the United States and Mexico. He creates with papier-mâché, recycled materials, wood and Styrofoam.

Daut said the art fulfills people’s personal and mental needs, and she watched as people experienced Soltero’s art.

“It was just special to see people taking selfies, dressed up in the Dia de los Muertos attire, and taking pictures with the installation and their family,” Daut said. “People just need moments of joy right now.”

The response has been similar with the downtown k-rail paintings.

“I’ve heard from someone down there that it just used to be these glum, white barriers,” Daut said. “The difference is night and day. It’s more of an experience. It will provide more of an experience for when you are dining, which we can’t do right now. The goal is to encourage people to go to restaurants when we can. For now, you can visit the shops and traverse the whole installation because it is an outdoor exhibition.”

The next project on Main Street featured a holiday theme. As part of the downtown Winter Lit program, artists installed their projects in storefront windows on the promenade. Daut said one of the benefits to this program is that the city can step in and do the administrative work and let artists focus on making art.

“A lot of vacant storefronts are very difficult for artists to initiate exhibitions themselves,” Daut said. “They would have to negotiate with landlords or properties who may not understand the concept of activating vacant space. Downtown Santa Monica was key in securing the space, taking care of the logistical and insurance needs and being the liaison to the businesses so the artist would be able to just create.”

Art of Recovery addresses three crises

The City invited anyone living in LA County to submit letters of intent explaining what their art project would be. When selecting projects, Art of Recovery will focus on three main priorities:

• Economic recovery

• Community connectedness and restorative justice

• Public health and safety

Each of those is designed to respond to the three crises that the city and the country finds itself in now: the pandemic, the economic collapse and systemic racism.

“We believe artists have much more compelling ideas than government bureaucrats would have,” Daut said. “We really wanted to create a program that would give artists the space and support that would envision projects that would address one of these three recovery goals.”

There will be multiple rounds of submissions and the letters of intent were reviewed by a mix of city leaders, arts commissioners, artists and arts administrators.The city has a total budget of $500,000 that is meant to last through June 30, 2021. Their plan is to have programs at different scales with a maximum amount of $20,000 per project. Projects such as the k-rail were given $3,000 while the physical distancing project was granted $6,500.

Daut points out that when the pandemic hit, the arts and artists were severely affected. The city realized it was going to have to step forward to aid in the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. They also wanted to address racial injustice.

They identified funds from a private cultural trust fund for the arts and launched the program. In addition to giving artists space and support to create, they are also working at building connections between artists, businesses and community organizations so everyone is in a stronger position when the city comes out of its recovery.

“Embedded historically (in the program) is the idea of connection and matchmaking,” Daut said. “We pair artists with business districts, with community groups, with neighborhood groups to develop relationships across sectors.”

Program continues through June 2021

Early this year, several new projects will be unveiled. “Rose River at Bergamot Station” is a collaboration between Building Bridges Art Exchange and other Bergamot businesses to present the Rose River Memorial, a collective memorial for those lost to COVID-19. It will include community rose making and an indoor and outdoor exhibition.

Another will be “What’s 6 Feet?” a community resiliency and recovery campaign to honor, show and share experiences of six feet apart and to stop the spread of COVID-19. A third project is “Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic,” which is an extension of artist Suchi Branfman’s five-year choreographic residency within the California Rehabilitation Center.

Currently, the projects in the works focus on visual arts, but they eventually want it to spread to performing arts, something that isn’t very feasible right now because of new COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns.

“With public art, you can be an observer in a passive way,” Daut said. “Performing arts involves bringing people together. We absolutely want to include the performing arts, it’s just a trickier one to pull off right now.”

Performing artists submitting for the first round were encouraged to come up with creative ideas that involved roving artists or audiences, but the program disallowed any art that generated a crowd or any type of gathering. The Federal Art Program that Art of Recovery is based on was a relief measure that employed artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theater scenic design, and arts and crafts.

Through the program, more than 100 community art centers were opened throughout the country. It gave work to more than 10,000 artists and craft workers during the Great Depression and created a wealth of public art, some of which is still in use today. It is that success that Santa Monica hopes to draw upon while recognizing the cultural importance of arts and artists to the city.

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