It was 1994 when I lived in downtown LA and what’s now known as the Geffen Contemporary used to be called the Temporary Contemporary. I’m not even sure if it was a satellite of MOCA back then, but I do remember it being my favorite museum in Los Angeles because artists could fit giant installations inside. It was a warehouse turned fantasy play space. At some point David Geffen saved it from closing down, and MOCA took full control. That bit is somewhat blurry as I moved to New York some 15 years ago.
The museum is located in downtown’s Little Tokyo and situated next door to a monument for Japanese-Americans WWII vets called the “Go For Broke Monument.” The monument was unveiled in 1999, and it is a memorial for war heroes and soldiers of Japanese descent (more info here).
As MOCA planned for an upcoming exhibit on street art called Art in the Streets, they commissioned a renowned Italian street artist, Blu, to paint a large scale mural on the wall which faces the monument. And then once the work was finished, MOCA whitewashed it the following day.
Although the museum issued a statement saying Blu’s anti-war statement was “inappropriate” to the veteran organizations in the neighborhood, one has to ask, what were they thinking? The wall faces the monument. Did Deitch approve Blu’s design originally or was it going to be done when they met?
Blu is a street artist. One of the points of being a street artist is freedom to express yourself publicly, without rules. Once a museum commissions a street artist to paint a mural on an outdoor wall does it then become public art and institutional? I think so.
And I don’t blame Blu for taking a museum commission to create his art. But I do blame MOCA heavily for not nurturing the project. Had MOCA been responsible to Blu and gone through some basic research prior to approval, this probably would have never happened. Once a museum commissions a street artist for a mural, that mural becomes institutionalized. So public art rules should then apply. This means initial drawings, site approval, a budget, insurance, and a curator/project manager who sees to producing the artist’s vision. In this case, it might have meant, oh … looking across the parking lot to the giant monument sitting RIGHT THERE.
At that point, if Blu felt very strongly about continuing with his anti-war statement, then it’s the museum’s responsibility to either approach the veteran’s groups and explain the work, or ask Blu to come up with a new concept (if they were so afraid to rock the boat). Who knows, the veterans might have embraced the project, or at least appreciated its right to exist. Public art curators can be incredibly savvy and persuasive; part curator/part diplomat. Occasionally it doesn’t work out in the artist’s favor, but the artist must feel the institution is championing them throughout the process.
I spent four years working in public art. Professional public artists often work in a manner similar to architects. There are phases to the project, sometimes it takes years to complete, and certainly there are fights. When studio artists find themselves producing a public work, it comes with many new challenges. Public artists have a specific talent and incredible patience to face constant bureaucracy: public art is not for every artist. And my feeling is the institutional public art world isn’t for most street artists. One makes concessions while the other challenges the law. Both are valuable. But it’s a confusing position for a street artist to be placed in the shoes of a public artist.
In light of all which has happened at the National Portrait Gallery, why then did Deitch make this colossal error of judgment? Was easier for him to erase the work than approach the veterans he was afraid of offending?
Now there’s a white washed museum wall, and a museum with egg on its face that just removed a piece of street art in the midst of preparing a street art exhibit (bonkers!). And an autocratic museum director who has not issued a public apology to the artist. Deitch failed the artist, and has now shown the art community that he does not have our backs.
Image caption: a screenshot of Blu’s blog featuring the controversial MOCA wall that was whitewashed.