A moratorium approved by the Los Angeles City Council on new construction of billboards in December was hailed as an important victory for local residents who feel that these signs have become both an eyesore and an unwelcome distraction to motorists. And now a number of Venice artists and muralists are hoping that this could be the opening that they have long been waiting for as a way to redirect the focus toward the necessity of having public art in both private and public spaces.
As part of the new ordinance that the council passed unanimously on December 17th, city officials will take another look at the current outdoor sign law, which holds that murals, billboards and other forms of advertising are essentially the same. Muralists feel that this has led to a de facto policy of eliminating these cultural art works from the scenic landscape, and that they have an unexpected opportunity to restate their case for defining why commercial advertising and art should be considered differently.
“There needs to be a clearer distinction between signs and murals,” said Emily Winters, chair and co-founder of the Venice Arts Council.
One of the nation’s foremost muralists, Judy Baca, has been an outspoken critic of the sign ordinance. The founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) and a UCLA fine arts professor, Baca believes that city officials did not clarify the difference between advertising and murals when the municipal law was written. SPARC is a Venice-based nonprofit community arts organization.
“When the sign ordinance was enacted, the city didn’t make a clear distinction between a sign and a mural,” Baca said in an interview at SPARC last year. “They tied it to language, and made a distinction that a mural is less than three percent text and a sign has more text.”
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning will be charged with the task of rewriting the sign ordinance, and the Department of Building and Safety will be responsible for the enforcement of the law, according to Luke Zamperini, principal inspector for the latter department.
“Our job will be enforcement, the inspection of the signs and making certain that each sign has a permit,” Zamperini said.
The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs is also expected to play a role in shaping a new ordinance, says Will Caperton y Montoya, the department’s director of marketing and development. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office will be involved in any rewrites of the sign ordinance as well.
While many in the local arts community interviewed believe that the moratorium offers the possibility to reevaluate the city’s sign ordinance, not all are convinced that it will happen.
Stash Maleski, the director of an arts production company in Venice called In Creative Unity or ICU Art, is not certain that the reprieve on billboards will result in a more expansive law that allows murals to be defined as art.
“At this point, after all that’s happened, I don’t feel that confident that the city will do what’s necessary to make this work out for artists,” Maleski lamented.
No permits have been issued for murals since the city’s decision last year to equate them with signs, while thousands have been granted in recent years to billboard companies by the city government. Artists such as Maleski and Winters bristle at the disparity, and feel that now is an opportune time to rectify this by reconfiguring the current sign ordinance.
“Even though there hasn’t been a great deal of outreach by the city to artists, this is a good opportunity to write a new ordinance,” Maleski said.
Winters added, “I think that billboards should have to go through the same process that murals go through. Property owners and the residents of a community should be able to approve of a billboard that comes into their community, just like murals.”
Organizations like SPARC have been unable to create any new community art because such art is prohibited under the city’s policy on signs and cultural art.
“At the moment, there is no process for the permitting of murals,” Department of Cultural Affairs murals manager Pat Gomez confirmed.
The department supports a recommendation that is similar to what Portland, Oregon has adopted for public art, using an arts easement process.
“This recommendation would allow the city to develop an easement process for review and approval of murals on private property that addresses many of the other concerns and issues affecting our city’s murals,” Olga Garay, the executive director of Cultural Affairs, wrote in a letter to members of the City Council Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee.
In this scenario, property owners donate an “art easement” to the city for a wall with an existing or proposed mural, which could exempt that public space from the city sign ordinance, according to the Web site of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a grassroots group that seeks to curtail the proliferation of billboards in Los Angeles.
Mike Newhouse, president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, agrees that the distinction between a billboard and a mural is very clear and he supports a reexamination of the sign law.
“Although this issue has not been brought before our council, as an individual and resident of Venice, I think that it would be a fantastic idea to write a clear sign policy that differentiates between a billboard and a sign,” Newhouse asserted. “They’re apples and oranges.”
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, has publicly issued his support for a rewrite that supports what Newhouse and many artists would like to see enacted.
“I definitely feel that a mural is a work of art and a commercial advertisement is just that,” he said. “A mural is a work of character, it speaks to the soul, it’s an artistic statement that goes to the heart of different communities.”
Winters said she and other artists have spoken before the Department of City Planning on the need for a more flexible policy regarding murals and she plans to do so again when public hearings are held.
“Local artists should be invited to voice their opinion on any changes to the sign ordinance,” she said.
Maleski supports a community panel where artists will have direct input on how the new sign law will be written.
“I hope that muralists will have a seat at the table this time,” he said.
Gomez said that after a plan is adopted, artists, along with the public, will be invited to give their ideas on any changes to the existing regulations.
The original ordinance governing outdoor advertising was structured to address height, placement and the permitting process for billboards and other forms of advertising and should not be construed to affect art in any way, says Rosendahl.
“Murals transcend politics, and that is definitely not what the sign ordinance was intended to impact,” the councilman said. “We have a significant number of quality artists in Venice who operate there who feel very strongly about this.”
Gomez cautioned that the easement proposal was only a recommendation and has to be considered by various city agencies. In addition, the Portland model might not be adapted in its entirety.
“We would be looking for something unique to Los Angeles,” she pointed out.
Rosendahl thinks that reviewing the sign ordinance as it relates to murals during the suspension on outdoor advertising is a good start.
“This gives us a chance to redefine, going forward, what a billboard is, what a mural is, where the locations should be and what revenue streams we should be getting and the overall policies of quality of life in our city,” he said.
On Tuesday, January 6th, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city’s prohibition on billboard signs. Metro Lights LLC, an outdoor advertising firm, had argued that the ban violates its 1st Amendment rights.
“This is strong, if rather sloganeering language, but after reviewing the case law on which Metro Lights relies, we believe it to be a little more than a canard,” the court wrote.
A tentative date of January 22nd has been set by the Planning Department to hear a presentation of the new ordinance by the Planning Commission.