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PART I -- City Leaves Public in the Dark Over Loss of Iconic Mural
By Jorge Casuso
First of two parts
January 16, 2020 -- Santa Monicans may never know how their City came to lose the iconic mural "Pleasures Along the Beach," after repeated requests for documents by a former Arts Commissioner failed to reveal how the behind-the-scenes decision was made.
Citing California law, the City withheld or redacted key documents requested under the Public Records Act that could explain why it turned down the large mosaic that stood at the corner of 26th and Wilshire for 50 years.
The documents the City did not redact heavily contain brief email exchanges, mostly between staff; long news articles on similar projects and descriptions and pictures of the mosaic by renown California artist Millard Sheets.
They also contain the settlement agreement with the owner of the building, Mark Leevan and Wilshire-26, approved by the City Council on August 28, 2018, that reversed the landmark status protecting the building and its artwork.
But none of the documents indicates whether any deliberations took place or how the decision was reached, or why the public -- including the Arts Commission mandated with making the final decision -- was kept in the dark.
In the City's responses to information requests, Rebecca Katsura, the City's public records coordinator, cited the reasons for withholding the information.
California law, Katsura said, exempts from disclosure "records that contain internal City staff deliberations that reflect thought processes, opinions, analysis, and recommendations concerning issues of concern."
Although the City can waive those exemptions, it made the decision not to do so.
"In weighing the public interest," Katsura wrote, "the City finds that the public interest served by nondisclosure of (the requested documents) clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure."
The documents that were released under the public records act indicate that Santa Monica arts officials were initially caught off guard by the City's settlement with the mosaic's owner.
One week after the City Council publicly voted to approve the settlement, Cultural Affairs Director Karen Ginsberg expressed surprise.
"This is the first that I'm hearing about this settlement," Ginsberg wrote in a September 4 email sent to Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut."I think the first step would be to go see the artwork don't you?"
Ginsberg quickly replied seeking a copy of the settlement.
"Not sure what the timing is for removing these artworks," she wrote. "I believe they are trying to redevelop the site.
"I have to say that I am a bit annoyed that while you were consulted on treatment of the works, we were not in the mix re: donation of the works Grrrr....."
Immediately following Ginsberg's request, Daut sent an email to Lesley Elwood, the City's public arts consultant, who had discussed the project with Deputy City Attorney Brandon Ward.
"I wasn't anticipating that it would fall back on our lap to oversee any re-siting of the work!" she wrote. "Would you have time to hop on a call this week to discuss this?"
After receiving a response, Daut emailed an update to Ginsberg."I just heard back from Lesley and she said Brandon made no mention of us receiving/re-siting the work when she talked with them about the Settlement," Daut wrote.
Leevan, however, had not yet found a recipient, although he had retained expert conservator Rosa Lowinger & Associates to remove "Pleasures Along the Beach" and the accompanying sculptures from the entrance to the former Home Savings building.
The City still had a chance.
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