A renowned local muralist says advocates for the arts should lobby the city to fine tune an ordinance that could open the door to the legalization of murals on private property soon.

Judy Baca, the founder and artistic director of the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resources Center, attended the last Venice Neighborhood Council meeting of 2011 on Dec. 22 to give the council as well as those in attendance her analysis of the mural ordinance that was released earlier this month.

City planning officials are in the midst of designing an ordinance that will once again create a distinction between advertising and art.

A municipal ordinance that followed a lawsuit by outdoor advertising companies nearly a decade ago equated signs with art and banned murals on buildings and property that is privately owned.

To the dismay of artists like Baca, the ordinance only prevented more murals being painted and not outdoor signs. “You take a look at our city and not withstanding our boardwalk, it has an increasingly remarkable resemblance to Hong Kong,” the muralist said.

Since 2002, city officials have equated outdoor advertising with visual art, which has angered painters, muralists and their supporters. Their artwork is prohibited on private property.

Murals are allowed on public spaces.

Despite giving the commission credit for exploring the creation of separating art from commercial speech, Baca said there are some flaws to the proposed law that she says need tweaking.

“SPARC applauds the efforts of the city’s Planning Commission to begin to take away the private building blockage of murals,” she said.

“The problem basically is the ordinance, as it is currently devised, does not make a distinction between signage or advertising and murals,” Baca added.

The muralist said in addition to making the difference between commercial speech and murals clear, there are two existing laws that protect murals and their creators: the California Art Preservation Act (CAPA) and the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) and city planners should consider when drafting the ordinance.

“What we’re asking is that Venice in particular, the place that murals in Los Angeles had some great moments, that we enforce VARA, that any mural that is done under the city ordinance used the act and make this a city that supports artists rights and freedom of expression,” she told the council.

VARA is a federal law that protects artists’ rights. Enacted in 1990, the law states that works of art that meet certain requirements afford their authors additional rights in the works, regardless of any subsequent physical ownership of the work itself, or regardless of who holds the copyright to the work.

Only paintings, sculptures, drawings, still photographic images and prints for exhibition only are protected under VARA.

Like VARA, CAPA also protects the rights of artists and muralists. The 1979 law provides for civil penaties and injunctive relief for the intentional or negligent destruction or mutilation of a work of fine art, which is defined in the statute as any original painting, sculpture, or drawing that is of “of recognized quality.”

Both laws give artists moral rights, which are defined as the rights of creators of copyrighted works.

Tanner Blackman, the city planner who is working on the newly proposed ordinance, said he has held workshops in several neighborhoods and plans to hold one on the Westside before the public comment period ends in February.

“The main (goal) of the ordinance is to separate murals from signs,” the planner said in an earlier interview.

Frank Romero, a noted Los Angeles muralist who founded a Chicano art collective nearly 40 years ago, has painted several murals throughout Los Angeles and says there is no reason to equate art with signage.

“They are quite different from advertising,” said Romero, who also has a mural in Santa Monica on a parking garage on Second Street, Santa Monica Pier Circa 1930.

Venice Neighborhood President Linda Lucks was concerned after she learned that Baca had not been involved in the discussions thus far in drafting the new ordinance. “I know how passionate she is about murals,” said Lucks, who invited Baca to address the local council. “I’m hoping that Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office and the city planners can find some common ground on this.”

SPARC, which was founded by Baca, filmmaker Donna Deitch and painter Christina Schlesinger, has been one of the organizations at the forefront of mural preservation and breaking new ground on new digital technologies for young artists.

The organization has embarked on an initiative to maintain the city’s murals, many of which have been painted by artists affiliated with SPARC.

Lucks likes the suggestion that if a mural law is created, artists wishing to create murals should hold community meetings and explain what they would like to do to groups like neighborhood councils. But after listening to Baca, she feels that that detail should be refined.

“In Venice we’re very welcoming to artists,” Lucks noted. “But in some neighborhoods, there might be some community groups and neighborhood councils that might want to render judgment on an artist’s work, and artists should be free to express themselves.”

The Venice council president referenced a situation a few years ago when her board sought to award a $20, 000 community grant for restoration work on two murals by Venice artist Emily Winters. At a council meeting, some residents expressed displeasure over the amount of money and others took issue with the content of the mural.

“It became very controversial,” Lucks recalled.

In Baca’s opinion, VARA and CAPA are the ideal templates for a new municipal law for murals.

“We don’t need to rewrite something that is already written,” she told The Argonaut after the meeting. “(The VARA Act) is written beautifully and all the court cases back it up.”

Romero has seen a mural that he painted in conjunction with the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles near the Hollywood Freeway damaged by graffiti vandals. He painted over the damage several times and in 2009 finally sued Caltrans under VARA.

“It sounds good,” he responded when asked what he thought about the proposal for a mural ordinance. “But laws can always be written where they are very broad and subject to different interpretations.”

The public comment period on the ordinance ends in Feb. 8, and Baca said the public can influence city planners and the City Council by giving them their opinions on the proposed ordinance.

“I encourage you to comment on it,” Baca implored the audience.

Blackman could not be reached for comment.

SPARC has published its recommendations for the ordinance on its website, www.savelamurals.com.