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Debate Erupts Over Art and Commerce

5 mural IMG_0063Pop artist Andy Warhol’s soup cans heated arguments over blurring commercialism in service of art when they were first exhibited in 1962.

This week, environmental consultant Roger Butow re-opened the topic in Laguna Beach, claiming in two public meetings that the city’s arts arbiters were “duped” when okaying an outdoor mural for a prominent downtown wall. Butow contends the work differs from what was sanctioned and constitutes an unfair, 500-foot billboard, though arts commissioners found otherwise. Moreover, Butow pointed out that parts of the mural aren’t original, but duplicated in Dana Point. He called for an inquiry.

City staff will investigate Butow’s allegations of violations of city policy, City Manager John Pietig said Wednesday.

At the mural’s unveiling last November, hundreds of people came to check out the “Waterman’s Wall” installed on the street-side of the Hobie Surf Shop at the corner of Beach Street and Forest Avenue. Artist Randy Morgan’s sprawling landscape in bronze relief includes surfers, skimmers, lifeguards, paddlers and pelicans.

When the mural was completed, additional figures and the scope of the mural that differed from the plan approved by the Arts Commission in 2010 caught the eye of cultural arts manager Sian Poeschl. Since Morgan failed to respond to her request that mural revisions be resubmitted for approval, Poeschl renewed her request this week with Hobie’s co-owner, local resident Mark Christy.

“It’s not a billboard,” said Christy. “It’s not depicting anything in the shop.”

City guidelines require murals be devised of original work and that artists seek approval of the Arts Commission. Works that include trademarks, logos or words are considered signage and require review by the Planning Commission.

Based on Morgan’s initial proposal, commissioners determined that the mural met the required artistic criteria and lacked a commercial message, Poeschl said. Whether the unsanctioned additions jeopardize that decision will have to be determined by the commission at some later date, she said.

In an email sent to council members and the media, Butow contends that a figure in the mural, a sculpture of a tandem surfing team and an homage to industry icon Hobie Alter, constitutes a franchise icon, a secondary logo for Hobie Inc.

Poeschl said that particular figure was part of the original approved design.

Yet, a similar tandem-team sculpture, which looks like it was cast from the same mold as the figures in Laguna’s mural, was also installed on a store Hobie remodeled in Dana Point several years ago. The works were installed voluntarily as the cost of the remodel fell below what would trigger a required public art installation, said John Tilton, acting director of community development.

Christy, who didn’t answer a query about the Dana Point art work, suggested the squabble stemmed from a financial dispute between Butow and Morgan. He said he did not initiate the Laguna project, but was approached by the artist, who raised private funds for its financing. “I thought I was doing something nice for the town,” Christy said.

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