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Downtown Public Art

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Picture of Shoshone from Bonaventure Picture of bicycle rack in Little Tokyo Picture of painted carnival ticket booth in Little Tokyo Picture of headless businessman at 7th and Figueroa

Since the 1950s, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) has played a major role in rebuilding Downtown after years of neglect. This public agency funds redevelopment projects with “tax increment revenue,” the taxes on the increased assessed value of properties after previous CRA-funded redevelopment.

CRA/LA funding comes with conditions intended to foster employment and improve the quality of life for people who live and work in the redeveloped neighborhoods. 25% of the tax increment revenue goes to building affordable housing. Developers must use qualified contractors who hire local construction workers and pay them a living wage, and meet “green” environmental sustainability goals and principles.

Developers also must spend at least 1% of their CRA/LA funding on public art. Along with the buildings that are art, that provision has contributed to making Downtown a fascinating place to explore, with many works to discover. Some have classic pretensions, while others reflect passing fads. Some are whimsical, some are thought-provoking, while others are utterly incomprehensible.

Conservatives whose blood boils at this sort of government interference can now rejoice. Legislation in 2011 to address California’s longstanding budget crisis eliminated all the state’s redevelopment agencies, including CRA/LA, and appropriated their funds and tax increment revenue for the state treasury. Now that the legislation has survived the lawsuit brought by an organization representing redevelopment agencies, we’ll get to see just how much better the Free Market does at revitalizing blighted neighborhoods and improving their quality of life.
Picture of Pershing Square Photograph of tower at Pershing Square Picture of fountain in Pershing Square Picture of pond in Pershing Square Picture of fountain in Pershing Square

With a Metro Rail station and stops for buses serving several transit agencies, Pershing Square is a good gateway to Downtown’s Financial District. First designated a public park in 1866, as the Mexican-style La Plaza Abaja, it has been repeatedly renamed and redesigned. It acquired its current name in 1918, to commemorate the armistice that ended World War I and to honor General John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces.

By 1992 the park had decayed into a favorite gathering place for drug addicts and homeless people, after decades as the uninviting grassy roof of an underground parking garage. The local property owners’ association and the CRA commissioned the Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta and the American landscape architect Laurie Olin to create a new park that would serve as a gathering place for the redeveloped Financial District. It was completed in 1994, at a cost of $14.5 million.

Legoretta’s concept was an updated version of the original Mexican plaza. But instead of the usual earth-toned adobe, this plaza is purple! (I don’t know if there’s any connection with the Metro Rail Purple Line, which includes the adjacent Pershing Square station.) There’s a purple bell tower 38 meters high, with a red ball taking the place of a bell; and a large fountain pond filled by a waterfall cascading from the end of a purple wall. Another purple wall at the south end of the park has square cutouts to frame views within the plaza.

Legoretta and Olin incorporated artifacts from past versions of the park, along with Barbara McCarren’s new Hey Day. McCarren’s work of installation art portrays the park as a “microcosm of Los Angeles.” An irregular tiled path leading to the fountain pond represents an earthquake fault. A collection of large orange spheres represents the Wolfskill orange grove that grew near the site of square in the nineteenth century. That grove established an industry by growing California’s first commercially exported oranges. Three telescopes set in concrete painted a contrasting bright yellow invite visitors to view the park in 1888, 1943, and the present.

Sections of Pershing Square can be rented for private parties. The park is also a venue for outdoor movies and temporary art exhibitions. Between November and January it’s the site of “Downtown on Ice,” a yuletide-themed outdoor skating rink.
Picture of Citigroup Center ground level Photograph of waterfall at Citigroup Center Picture of South figure at Citigroup Center Picture of reflection on Fargo Podium at Citigroup Center

Like the neighboring Library Tower, Citigroup Center has had several names (corresponding to changing major tenants) since it opened in 1979. Originally the Wells Fargo building, it was known by its address— 444 South Flower Street— until Citigroup moved in. An enclosed galleria becomes a work of stark architectural art when photographed in black and white.

Across from the waterfall at the south end of the galleria is Robert Rauschenberg’s Fargo Podium. It’s a rectangular piece containing an assorted collage of newspapers, maps, prints, and book pages behind glass. Five meters long and standing a meter high, Rauschenberg intended as a functional bench for people who work in and visit the building to sit and watch what’s happening on the street-level plaza. But most people (including art critics) find it unfathomable as artwork and uninviting as a bench. Its most effective use may be as a mirror that reflects the Library Tower.

On the outdoor street level plaza is Michael Heizer’s set of stainless steel geometric shapes: North (two rectangles), East (upside-down cone), South (right-side-up cone) and West (wedge). The most salient work in Citigroup Center’s art collection might be Shoshone (the first picture at the top of this page), Mark di Suvero’s 14-meter-high easel that faces the Bonaventure Hotel. The artist painted it bright red and orange to “enhance its visibility from the street.”
Picture of Milton Hebald's Olympiad 84 sculpture

Photograph of Milton Hebald's Handstand sculpture Picture of Milton Hebald's Handstand sculpture
Picture of Gideon Graetz's Mind, Body, and Spirit sculpture Picture of Michael Zapponi's Alchemy of the Human Spirit Self Portrait in Mind, Body, and Spirit Photograph of Gideon Graetz's Composition In Stainless Steel and Bronze, Number 11

The plaza of the Stuart M. Ketchum Downtown YMCA at the corner of Hope and 4th Streets is officially called the Morgan Adams Jr. Sculpture Garden. Its six sculptures depict the YMCA’s theme of health and physical fitness.

Milton Hebald’s two sculptures are the most directly representational works in the plaza. The three bronze female runners of Olympiad ’84, in front of the YMCA building near the entrance, commemorate the fact that although YMCA stands for “Young Men’s Christian Association,” half its members are women. Hebald’s title alludes to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, held two years before the work was created.

(For that matter, a significant percentage of members aren’t Christian. The national YMCA umbrella organization has increasingly emphasized diversity in recent years. The mission statement of the Downtown YMCA is to “put Judeo-Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” And the YMCA’s official branding throughout the United States is “the Y,” as the gyms have been commonly called for years.)

Hebald’s other work, Handstand, is on top of a three-meter-high pedestal at the end of a pedestrian walkway across Flower Street that connects the plaza to the Bonaventure Hotel. As the name suggests, it’s a bronze figure of a young male athlete— possibly Hebald’s grandson— doing a handstand, his legs appropriately forming a Y.

Michael Zapponi’s Alchemy of the Human Spirit is a cast-bronze and stainless steel sculpture that captures the intense focus and dedication of a gymnast on a balance bar.

There are two abstract works made of stainless steel and bronze by the Israeli sculptor Gidon Graetz. The larger one was originally titled Composition for Stainless Steel No. 1, but was renamed Mind, Body and Spirit to reflect the YMCA’s motto. The sculpture includes an interactive element: Viewers can rotate it to change what’s reflected on its polished curved surface. Those so inclined might also use it as a medium to make their own art, such as this self-portrait.

The other Graetz sculpture retains the descriptive minimalist title, Composition in Stainless Steel and Bronze, Number 11. It also rotates, and has the complementary modern background of the Bonaventure Hotel across the street.

Note: I’m indebted to Ruth Wallach’s very informative Public Art in Los Angeles Web site, along with CRA/LA’s Art Projects pages, for many of the details about the art and artists.

Downtown Los Angeles

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