In an age of accelerating digital platforms and a decelerating economy, the City of West Hollywood’s expenditure of $35 million on its new library might seem a little puzzling. Even more unusual is the city’s investment in not one but two highly visible public art programs for the complex.
The first of these programs, featuring the work of street artist Shepard Fairey (of Obama “Hope” poster fame), was a casualty of controversy and city politics early on. The city, under the guidance of well-known art consultant Merry Norris, almost hired Fairey back in 2009 as part of its public percent for art program. But as Fairey became embroiled in a lengthy copyright lawsuit over his iconic depiction of President Obama, the city council’s support for the artist began to wane.
As a result, the city “started all over again,” explained Norris. After a more rigorous approval process, the city not only again selected Fairey to create a mural for the entrance to the City Council chambers but also commissioned sculptor David Wiseman to create a site-specific installation in the interior stairwell.
Fairey, who sought the public’s input for his mural, created a floor-to-ceiling celebration of West Hollywood’s history and culture, depicting local landmarks like the art deco Sunset Tower Hotel, the Roxy, and the Emser Tile sign. Wiseman’s piece, a soaring series of branches emerging from the walls, ascends towards the skylight in the stairwell atrium. The bronze and porcelain sculpture provides a visual connection to the adjacent 5-acre park and sycamore trees planted near the site.
“I latched onto the idea of ghosts of indigenous species reclaiming their space,” explained Wiseman. “It welcomes people, and transitions them between the outside and inside.”
Perhaps overshadowing the city’s own public art program, the Museum of Contemporary Art has also spearheaded a temporary street art program at the library, which sits across the street from its own West Hollywood outpost at the Pacific Design Center. MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch, hoping to promote the museum’s recent exhibition “Art in the Streets,” was stymied by LA’s mural ordinance and found West Hollywood much more welcoming. Although the proposals still went through city approvals.
As a result, there are now three massive murals, by Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and the artist Retna, helping add life to the otherwise blank and unfriendly walls of the library’s five-story parking garage: Fairey’s massive “peace elephant,” Retna’s signature calligraphy, and Scharf’s nod to animated cartoons. While the city paid for the murals’ anti-UV and anti-graffiti coating, the remainder of the funding came from MOCA, sponsored in part by Cadillac and Vanity Fair. The murals are slated to stay up at least a year, and may be extended beyond that, according to Andrew Campbell, the city’s cultural affairs administrator.
Architecture firm Johnson Favaro, meanwhile, has provided its own artistic touches inside the dynamic, but somewhat overscaled Beverly Hills Library building. For instance on the second floor a light-filled, column-free space is highlighted by a bamboo veneer ceiling decorated with computer-milled floral patterns. The small reference room, one of the few spaces that shrank in the new plan, is being offset by a large amount of “technology carrels” and a great amount of flexibility to anticipate future changes. While the protracted debate two years ago may have slowed the city’s selection of collaborators, it seems the new procedures are working, as evidenced by the secondary art program on the garage. “Design and art are not usually best done by committee,” said Johnson Favaro principal Steven Johnson. “But West Hollywood strikes the right balance.”