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How the City Failed to Pursue "Pleasures Along the Beach"  

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By Jorge Casuso

January 17, 2020 -- (Second of two parts) As the deadline to accept the iconic mural "Pleasures Along the Beach" inched closer, City officials expressed little or no sense of urgency to act, according to documents obtained by the Lookout.

In fact, the documents indicate City officials had to be urged by preservationists to move quickly, then seemed to express more interest in the costs of removing the large mosaic, a cost the owner had committed under a court settlement to fully pay.

Millard Sheets signature on "Pleasures Along the Beach"
Milllard Sheets signature in "Pleasures Along the Beach" (Courtesy Williams Art Conservation)

 

In an email sent on December 19 to Deputy City Attorney Heidi von Tongeln, the Santa Monica Conservancy expressed concerns that the owner was acting quickly, while the City had no plan to retain the mural.

"Our understanding is that, while the City agrees that retaining the mural in Santa Monica is desirable," wrote Carol Lemlein, "there has been no progress on a plan to do so."

In her email, Lemlein noted that Mark Leevan -- the owner of the old Home Savings building and its accompanying artworks -- intended to "remove the artworks immediately."

If the City failed to act on his "offer to donate the mural," Lemlein said, Leevan planned to place it in storage.

Lemlein suggested that a developer may wish to accept the mural to fulfill the City's requirement that 1 percent of a development's cost be set aside for art.

"There may be future opportunities," Lemlein wrote, "to utilize the mural in meeting the City-requited public art commitment for anticipated new development in Santa Monica."

Lemlein urged the City to request "an extension of the stated deadline, so as to allow additional exploration of a relocation and financing plan for the mural."

***

On December 21, the settlement agreement approved by the City Council on August 28 was extended, allowing the City additional time to help find a recipient or accept the mural as part of its public arts collection.

Already, the City had requested the cost of removing the mural from Rosa Lowinger and Associates, the art conservators owner Mark Leevan had retained.

On December 20, 2018, at the request of the City's Public Arts Supervisor Chris Guerra, the firm provided a comparable "to give you a general idea of costs" for removing and storing the mural.
Left panel of "Pleasures Along the Beach"
Left panel of "Pleasures Along the Beach"

The total cost, wrote Christina Varvi, the firm's senior conservator, was $897,000.

The City seemed fixated on the cost Leevan had agreed to incur.

Among the documents obtained by the Lookout is a lengthy article that appeared in a July 2012 issue of the Dallas News titled "How midcentury mosaics were saved, weeks from the wrecking ball."

Two passages have been highlighted in yellow.

One reads, "'Saving mosaics is a very expensive, tough operation,' explains the son of artist Millard Sheets."

The other reads, "more than $2 million has been spent on the removal, storage and restoration of the Mercantile mosaics."

By using comparables based on the estimated cost of removing the glass and ceramic mosaic, City officials were vastly overestimating the re-installation cost to the recipient.

On January 28, City Manager Rick Cole updated the Council on the "2600 Wilshire Artwork" and noted that "projects of a similar size, scope, and artistic significance have cost millions of dollars and several years to complete."

Cole added that in its "evaluation" of the artworks, staff found it "cannot reasonably be sited and maintained by the City, due to its substantial size and the potential costs of re-installing and maintaining the work."

None of the documents -- several of which have been heavily or completely redacted -- indicates such an evaluation took place.

Redacted City email
Redacted email released by the City under Public Records Act

And none further mentions the Conservancy's suggestion that developer arts fees could be applied to keep the mural in Santa Monica.

On January 30, two days after Cole updated the Council, Deputy City Attorney von Tongeln sent an email to Leevan's attorney, Ken Kutcher, confirming the City had turned down the artworks.

"The City has elected not to receive the 'Pleasures Along the Beach' mosaic by Millard Sheets or either of the two metal sculptures," von Tongeln wrote.

She added, "We have also been informed that Mr. Leevan may be interested in negotiating the terms of the settlement further. Please advise if you would like to discuss."

No further documents indicate such a discussion was pursued, and the public, including the Arts Commission, was never informed the City had rejected the treasured mosaic ("'Distressed' Arts Commission Learns Why Santa Monica Lost Its Iconic Mural," June 20, 2019).

Right panel of "Pleasures Along the Beach"
Right panel of "Pleasures Along the Beach"
At the end of the email, von Tongeln added a list of "potential alternative recipients for consideration."

The list included six potential recipients, none of them in Santa Monica. No developers were included on the list.

***

Among the documents released by the City is a press release dated June 5 announcing "Pleasures Along the Beach" would be leaving the City it had been created for.

"We are extremely excited to announce" that the artworks "will be finding a new home at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University in the City of Orange," the release read.

The following day, the City's supervisor for public art, reported to Daut that Lowinger had provided an estimate of the relocation cost.

The estimated budget range -- "100-150K."


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