Judy Baca, head of Venice’s Social and Public Art Resource Center, on L.A.’s renewed interest in murals and using art as a voice for social justice

Judy Baca, a creator and defender of public art, stands near her magnum opus, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles”

Judy Baca, a creator and defender of public art, stands near her magnum opus, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles”

Venice muralist Judy Baca has left her mark on the world as both a creator and defender of public art for more than 40 years.

The executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, Baca was at the forefront of L.A.’s public art scene when the city was regarded as the mural capital of the world in the 1970s and early ‘80s. She led a team of young artists in creating social justice-themed paintings such as “Endangered Species” on the Venice boardwalk and SPARC’s magnum opus, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles.” One of the world’s largest murals, “The Great Wall” chronicles the history of native and minority communities on a stretch of the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley.

In 1988, then-L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley tapped Baca to lead the Neighborhood Pride Program, a citywide initiative to paint murals that created some 450 of them in two years.

Though optimistic about the city’s August 2013 mural ordinance that ended a decade-long prohibition on creation of new public art on privately owned spaces, Baca sees plenty more work to be done — in particular, reviving a culture of public art that rises above commercial impulses to tell stories of the marginalized and disenfranchised.

“I remind people that the time when murals flourished — when they were at their highest production — was when there were no restrictions on murals,” said Baca, a professor of fine arts at UCLA. “Now that Los Angeles seems to be interested in murals again, I think it’s time for SPARC to start going back to the communities where we had organized and produce the kinds of murals that we did in the past and revive interest in these works. We’re talking about a neighborhood pride renewal.”

— Gary Walker


How are artists dealing with the new mural ordinance?

I’m not really aware of problems, but I do know that the process is pretty well spelled out and that it’s quite simple, although it does have some bureaucratic steps. But I think that in general everyone has an equitable chance to get a permit.

The mural ordinance is a step in the right direction. The fact that we have an ordinance that will allow for the production of new works on private buildings is a critical step forward. We’re talking about a moratorium that went on for over 10 years. SPARC was very consistent through all of that period, fighting and advocating for the changes to that ordinance and for a better and more equitable way of dealing with public art. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a united front within the arts community. Our major organizations like LACMA and MOCA that have a lot of clout didn’t step forward at the time that these things occurred, and they could have. One reason could be because the mural form has always been considered a form that was designated to minorities — that it came out of minority communities and therefore it wasn’t real art. So their job was about [protecting] larger art with a commercial interest.

There have been 32 mural applications submitted so far under the mural ordinance — eight of them completed, 16 still being processed, three withdrawn, three rejected and two expired, according to the city’s Cultural Affairs Dept. So it must be that many of the murals going up locally aren’t going through the permit process. Is that a risky move for an artist?

There was a period of time where everything was stalled and there was some talk on the street about why not paint a mural if they were eventually going to be approved. I’m not sure if it’s risky or not because I’m not sure that the Cultural Affairs Dept. is in the position to have the permitting process fully running yet. I think there’s going to be a lot of trial and error for a while with this new permitting process. It might have to be tweaked. But the best news is that the city has said, “We did the wrong thing. We need to preserve this work and we have to recognize this work.”

Are younger muralists interested in the same kinds of expressions as artists in the 1970s?

I don’t think so. We’ve gone through a period of an absence of teaching young muralists that tradition of social justice, and as a result of that there was no training. The only training was through street artists and corporations. And unfortunately, [young artists] learned those lessons well. You talk to a lot of graffiti artists today and they talk to you about “coverage,” about “branding.” They talk a lot about creating brands for themselves, personal logos so that they can become rich and famous. Now it’s time to teach them other lessons. These young artists need the opportunity to create public art and to be able to express themselves in relation to others. There’s a kind of connectedness that we need to access again.

The Foster the People mural in downtown Los Angeles, a reproduction of the band’s latest album cover, has provoked discussion about the differences between commercial and public art. How is the art world grappling with those distinctions?

The Foster the People mural is exactly what we don’t want. What has happened is that people do this under the guise of making a fine artwork so that they could do advertising for free. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with painting something like that. It’s an album cover — just pay the fee. Don’t pretend it’s public art, because it’s not.

If a building owner can choose to re-do the Fine Arts Squad’s “Brooks Avenue Painting” mural in Venice, how powerful are the protections afforded by the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act?

I think [Fine Arts Squad co-founder Victor] Henderson’s piece should have never been touched, and it’s good that he’s suing. Without VARA, someone could take a mural of mine that I have painted with a very specific point of view and modify that image to say the opposite thing. It’s a very critical law for the maintenance of the intellectual property of the artist and the integrity and the authenticity of that work. The biggest impediment is that we don’t have the money to enforce it. Most artists are not going to be able to pay an attorney who might charge them $250 to $300 an hour to enforce their rights under VARA. Therefore, it is as good as those who can afford to pay to enforce it.

Have you had any murals destroyed?

Oh yes. The first mural that I painted called “Mi Abuelita” [“My Grandmother”] in east Los Angeles in Hollenbeck Park was destroyed by the city. City workers painted over it after they came to fix a crack in the ceiling over the mural. I had no recourse because it was done in 1970, when you didn’t need a permit for a mural. But I think I’m going to restore that one again. I was over there recently and I thought, “You know, I should put this one back.” I’d have to go back and find the digital print and blow it up.

How has technology influenced the creation of public art?

The imaging power of being able to imagine a piece on a site before it exists is a critical element and a wonderful element for public artists. Our digital lab at SPARC has become a very important research facility for us as well as for young artists, and one of the major impacts of that is we’re able to produce a mural work before it’s actually painted.     I can now actually paint onscreen, and I’ll be able to do so long after the time that I won’t be able to hang off scaffolding. We haven’t even begun to think of all the things that we can do with technology.