Musings on the Coast

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The Missing Wonder Wall

This is a story about how Laguna Beach public art should work, but does not. Usually.

This is how it usually works. The Laguna Beach Arts Commission is given a certain annual budget created by a slight increase in the hotel tax (thank you again Sam Goldstein for your leadership on this.) This stream of monies goes to a variety of local arts causes, including public art (mainly public statues.) The Commission periodically selects a public art setting, budgets and guidelines for competition among the artist applicants. Then, eventually it selects the winner. Generally speaking, the winner must be a local artist to support, you know, “local artists.”

Photo by Andrea Adelson Street artist Ben Eine finishing the “Wonder” mural on Aug. 28. Photo by andrea Adelson.
Photo by Andrea Adelson
Street artist Ben Eine finishing the “Wonder” mural on Aug. 28. Photo by andrea Adelson.

The commission is composed of nine members. None are allowed to be an arts professionals like museum curators; opinions by actual professionals are considered biased by too much education and obvious “agendas.” Local artists, however, can be on the commission. That they can vote for their buddies—meaning other local artists—-is not considered a conflict of interest.

The result, as could have been predicted, is mediocrity. It is not a City of the Arts. It is a City of the Mediocre Arts. Its most noteworthy accomplishment seems to be a large sculpture of a breaching whale in Heisler Park. While I like the whale and consider it among the best public art pieces that Laguna has to offer, the whale does not belong here. It belongs in Huntington Beach.   Huntington self-brands itself as Surf City, whose persona and architecture already is hopelessly mediocre. Surf City is where the whale belongs and I am sure it would bring ohhs and ahhs. (Yes, I am a snob on the subject.)

The side of Pet Coast Supply in North Laguna as it looks today. Photo by Jody Tiongco.
The side of Pet Coast Supply in North Laguna as it looks today. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

So slowly and surely, our city is filling up with public art I affectionately call crap art, as in: City of Laguna Beach, what is your long-term art goal? To be known as a city of great public art, or the city of crap public art? Because if it is the latter, let me tell you, your goal is being accomplished magnificently.

Anyway, not too long ago, a nationally known street artist came to live here. Street art is what it implies: cool, weird, arresting, spontaneous and not previously approved by any public body.


This street artist, Ben Eine, decided to paint, with approval by the owner, two stories of the side of a building just north of the Vons Pavilions and you can see it on the inland side of Coast Highway as you drive toward Corona del Mar. It looks sort of like a ‘60s-style explosion of color, whimsy and good humor. On it is the word “CHARMING” painted in large, hippie-style, letters, and it is what it states it is: charming.

Shortly thereafter, again with permission by the building owner, Ben and his coordinator, Adam Casper, painted the side of the pet store building a bit further north. Its word was “WONDER” and it was a wonder and everyone loved it.

In the meantime, you could almost hear Laguna’s bureaucratic wheels rolling into motion. No previous approvals? No vetting? No involvement of the Design Review Board, the Arts Commission, the Planning Commission or the City Council? None? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear….. How could that have happened? Doesn’t everyone know those bureaucratic wheels will grind you into dust? Doesn’t everyone know we, Laguna Beach, have officially graduated into Nanny City status and any attempt whatsoever at spontaneity is strictly prohibited? By God, what was happening here, Mr. Jones?

Then a miracle occurred. At a public meeting of the assembled Laguna powers-that-be, the two art pieces were retroactively approved. By God, Mr. Jones, take that. We could, and did, award spontaneity, creativity and whimsy.

Yes, a win for Laguna Beach!

Oh, if the story only ended there, but alas, ‘twas not so.

The owner of the pet store may have approved the painting, but the message never made it to the building manager. That guy, described as a 37-year-old male, lives in Newport Beach, naturally. No doubt a card-carrying wanna-be yuppie. He decided the painting was “childish” and without consultation with the owner, immediately sprang into action. He would show those heathens. He had the mural painted over in a dull white. Naturally. Back to boring.

There two morals to this story. One, maybe there is hope for our Nanny City after all. And two, as described by King Brad at my local cove, Laguna is simply cool.


Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.

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