The Social and Public Art Resource Center, led by Executive Director Debra Padilla, celebrates 35 years in Venice this month

Thirty-five years of  history and social justice through art

Its work can be seen throughout Los Angeles on the sides of buildings and fences, and arguably its most famous mural traverses the wall of a flood channel in the San Fernando Valley.
Its Mural Resource and Education Center, as a repository for all things related to murals, is the largest in the nation, and its influence on mural art as well as the evolution of digital drawings and more recently graffiti art has brought the organization in contact with new artists, eager to practice their passion.
While creating and preserving mural art has been a staple of the mission of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) for more than three decades, the organization in recent years has dedicated itself to rescuing murals that have been destroyed, removed or damaged by vandals, property owners of the buildings where the colorful and interpretive artworks are installed and by the city’s bureaucracy.
The arts center, a venerable Venice institution on Venice Boulevard, turns 35 years old this month and has been a bastion of artistic expression for muralists and lovers of community art. Its founder and artistic director, Judith Baca, is one of the nation’s foremost muralists and was instrumental in the creation of many of the city’s most vivid and powerful artworks.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a former Venice resident, has long been a SPARC supporter.
“The positive energy that they have put into the murals that are all over the city has made this city a better place,” the councilman, who represents Venice, said. “Judy Baca is a tremendous asset to the mural community.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks echoed Rosendahl’s sentiments.
“SPARC is a treasure in Venice and to the city,” said Lucks, who has lived in Venice for 40 years. “For years they were charged with identifying, cataloging and restoring murals until budget cuts for mural preservation tragically permitted a lack of oversight and the destruction of many murals.”
SPARC murals have a long, rich history in Venice, including some before the organization was founded as it is presently known.
“SPARC has been a catalyst for social change through the arts and a home for artistic innovation, creating public art as a vehicle to promote civic dialogue, foster cross-cultural understanding and address critical social issues,” states a release for its anniversary events, which begin Oct. 13.
That night from 4 to 7 p.m., Baca will lead special tours of The Great Wall of Los Angeles, the world’s longest and SPARC’s most famous mural.
The following week, Oct. 20 from 7 to 11 p.m., SPARC will mark 35 years of art, education and social justice in Los Angeles with a celebration party that will feature awards, a retrospective exhibition and music by jazz and blues legend Barbara Morrison.
The Great Wall project was SPARC’s first. It is a half-mile long and depicts the history of Los Angeles’ ethnic groups through the 1950s. There are plans to restore the mural and add images of the remaining four decades of the last century.
Baca said three and a half decades have gone by quickly.
“They really have,” she said. “There are so many wonderful memories, so many wonderful stories, and so many people who have come through these doors. It’s really quite extraordinary.”
The arts center’s artistic director says the transformation of the building where SPARC is housed from the old Venice Jail into a social justice center is something that makes her very proud.
“The conversion of this physical space into something open and welcoming has been extraordinary,” she said.
Over the last decade, the arts center has begun to incorporate contemporary concepts into its artistic vision, merging the traditional methods with new ideas.
“SPARC has always been at the forefront of revolutionizing mural art,” said SPARC Executive Director Debra Padilla. “Whether it’s with acrylics, frescos or spray cans, being an empathetic listener to our communities has been part of our mission.”
Baca’s organization has also been involved in shaping the new mural ordinance that will soon come before the City Council. As SPARC has witnessed so many of their murals being defaced by graffiti, painted over or removed over the years due to a lack of oversight and enforcement, Baca created an initiative called “Save L.A. Murals.” That led them to participate in the drafting of a new ordinance that will separate art from commercial signs, which has long been a point of contention for Baca.
“The distinction between murals and signs is simple; it’s the intent,” Baca said in a 2009 interview. “If it’s about beauty or social interaction, it’s a mural. If it’s designed to sell a product, then it’s advertising, pure and simple.”
Emily Winters, a Venice muralist, admires SPARC for the legacy that it has created among mural artists.
“I think they been a very important institution in Venice and throughout Los Angeles,” said Winters, whose Jaya mural was completed under the Citywide Mural Program, SPARC’s predecessor.
Baca was inspired by the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and much of her murals in East Los Angeles and other parts of the city reflect the zeitgeist of the times: social unrest, the women’s movement, and Latino youth beginning to take pride in their identities and communities and how that was translated artistically.
Many of her murals reflect her heritage, but they also express multiculturalism and social justice.
Carol Wells, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, was part of the Women’s Caucus For Art at its 40th anniversary this year with Baca.
“All art is political, but not all art is overtly political,” asserted Wells, whose organization collects and exhibits posters relating to historical and contemporary movements of social changes. “SPARC’s murals reflect social change.”
Lucks believes one of SPARC’s signature murals, The Great Wall, has had a lasting effect on Los Angeles. “(The Great Wall) was the catalyst that brought the (Los Angeles River) back to life,” she said.
Wells concurs.
“The Great Wall was an incredible idea and a great accomplishment,” she said.
Winters noted how SPARC has moved to incorporate the latest technological features into how art is archived as well as a new art form. “They have been one of the forerunners in having public art digitized,” she said.
Asked what comes to mind when she thinks about 35 years of SPARC, Baca replied, “Good hearted people, community conscious arts and social justice through art.
“It’s been a very exciting time,” she concluded. “It’s been hard, but exciting.”§