THE WRITING’S ON THE WALL — Former Beyond Baroque Executive Director Fred Dewey at the Venice Poets Monument.

An effort to restore a boardwalk memorial to spoken word is underway

By Gary Walker

For a dozen years, it has stood as a place where those who express themselves through the spoken word can seek to illuminate, agitate and/or enlighten.

Along with a variety of other local cultural touchstones, to many it embodies what Venice was for decades and still remains: a place where free expression is valued and encouraged.

While some may feel that in recent years the concept of peaceful disagreement has become challenged with hot-button topics like homelessness, parking and gentrification taking center stage, a group of artists and advocates of free expression are embarking on a campaign to refurbish a wall where local poets have been inscribing their thoughts, observations and feelings for several years.

The Venice Poets Monument has seen better days. Some of the lettering of the poems has dissipated and the wall is in overall poor condition.

In an effort to preserve and rehabilitate the monument, the Venice Arts Council is hosting a music, poetry and art event at Boardriders in Venice Thursday, May 31. A variety of local artists and musicians are scheduled to attend and the evening’s proceeds will benefit the Venice Arts Council’s Endangered Arts Fund Venice Beach Poets Monument Restoration project.

Suzanne Thompson, the co-founder of the Venice Arts Council, says rehabilitating the wall has become her passion.

“It’s a very unique kind of project,” said Thompson. “We have a great deal of history with poets in Venice and I think that (the fundraiser) is a wonderful tribute to Venice’s history.”

Part of the restoration will include cleaning the walls and applying a protective anti-graffiti coating to them.

Event organizers also hope to refurbish the wall of the restrooms near the monument. According to Thompson, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), which has been involved in several mural restoration initiatives, has agreed to do the poet’s wall for $7,000.

“I was happy that SPARC came in with a bid that was workable for us,” said Thompson. “It’s extra special because they’re also in Venice.”

Beginning with the Beat poets in the 1950s, Venice has long been a haven for poets, painters, sculptors and musicians. Muralists soon found a home in the seaside community in the 1970s and with the Venice Art Crawl, a recent venture that features new artists in “pop-up galleries” in restaurants, stores and galleries along the Venice Boardwalk, a new synergy of artistic expression appears to be on the rise.

Beyond Baroque, the venerable Venice Boulevard bastion of poetry for over 40 years has showcased some of the most well-known poets and spoken word artists in the nation.

The monument itself, like much of Venice’s art and artists, has its own unique history. Curated in 2000, it was once known as the Venice Beach Poetry Walls.

Fred Dewey, the former executive director of Beyond Baroque, is the curator of the poet’s monument.

“Venice is precious and I chose the poets – for what will hopefully be only a first round of permanent boardwalk poems – to reflect the area’s history, depth, and promise,” he said. “Culture can be protected in Los Angeles, and the poets are our voice, our sustenance.”

Thompson thinks the fundraiser can also serve an additional purpose. “I think it’s an opportunity to shed some light on public art in Venice,” she said.

Thompson also chairs the Venice Arts Council’s Endangered Art Fund, created in 2006 to restore and protect two of the community’s murals.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose chief of staff Mike Bonin was instrumental in helping to get the monument curated, according to Thompson, said the effort to restore the monument is quintessential Venice.

“To see all of these wonderful people from the artistic community and those who love the arts pulling together once again to restore this monument is very exciting,” said the councilman, who once resided in Venice.

Four years ago, two Venice landmarks were threatened and were ultimately saved after an intense political lobbying campaign and a citywide outreach effort took place. The City Council, during a budget crunch, considered eliminating the leases of Beyond Baroque and SPARC. The budget plan would have suspended the non-profits’ existing leases and forced them to pay at least 50 percent of the current market value of the buildings.

SPARC officials rallied support for their organization with a series of press releases asking for the public’s help in lobbying City Hall.

“A proposal by the Los Angeles city administrator’s office would eliminate the $1 per-year leases for 116 nonprofit organizations (approximately 16 arts organizations) working in the interest of the public,” stated one release.

“Should this policy be enacted, it will severely impact arts organizations, eliminate jobs and increase urban blight by potentially contributing to the number of derelict and/or abandoned buildings in the city.”

Beyond Baroque also organized support to save its lease as well. In part due to the intervention of Rosendahl, who represents Venice, the City Council voted 11-0 Feb. 29, 2008 to award the non-profit a 25-year lease at $1 a year, ensuring its place in Venice for at least the next quarter century.

“(The City Council budget plan) really stirred up a lot of anxiety, because Beyond Baroque is one of the few cultural, literary and especially poetry centers like this in the United States,” Dewey noted after the lease was signed. “To the best of my knowledge, there are virtually no centers of this kind that are so dedicated to poetry that are independent and not connected to a university.”

Thompson was involved in that initiative as well and views the May 31 event as preserving another Venice icon.

“It’s important for the community to be good stewards of public art,” she said.

Dewey said the restoration efforts could maintain and showcase the work of poets who have written on the monument as well as poems by future artists in such a way that others might understand the importance of the beachside community and the ideals that many of them have long embraced.

“Their poems, if properly preserved, can remind the world not only why Venice is important but how meaningful democracy has been, and can be, protected there,” he said.

Thompson said the arts council hopes to raise at least $28,500 for the project.

Boardriders is at 585 N. Venice Blvd. A “Meet and Greet” with the artists begins at 6 p.m. and admission is $100.

Pegarty Long, the sister of the late well-known Venice poet Philomene Long, is scheduled to read a poem at the event.

Admission to the fundraiser begins at 7 p.m. and is $20.

(Full disclosure: The Argonaut is a sponsor of the event).