Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the previous owner of 2171 Laguna Canyon Road. Wyland Gallery is a former tenant. The Independent regrets the error.
A prominent Laguna Beach artist is protesting the planned demolition of his gray whale mural on a Laguna Canyon building, arguing it should be preserved forever under a federal law that protects certain public art.
Robert Wyland, a renowned marine life artist and conservationist, said his 500 square-foot mural at 2171 Laguna Canyon Road was set to be demolished Monday, according to a press release. A photojournalist reporting for the Independent said there was no construction activity at the mural site on Monday morning.
The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 and replaced a previous iteration installed over 30 years ago, is culturally significant and falls under the protection of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Wyland claims.
“These laws were created not only to protect the rights of artists but to save significant, meaningful artworks in communities everywhere,” Wyland said in a press release. “The gray whale mural is an important symbol of Laguna Beach’s commitment to the arts and environment. Destroying it destroys everything we stand for.”
Chris Dornin, CEO of Dornin Investment Group, acquired the Laguna Canyon property two years ago. It previously served as the home to Wyland Gallery before it was relocated to its current South Coast Highway building.
As early as May 2019, Dornin Investment Group invited Wyland to relocate the mural, which is bolted to the building, according to emails provided to the Independent. The real estate investor also conveyed a statement from city officials that the mural isn’t part of Laguna Beach’s art collection or the Art in Public Places program.
“He’s had all the opportunities over the last two years and he hasn’t done anything about it,” Dornin said in a phone interview Thursday.
On Friday, Dornin said he will offer the mural to the Laguna College of Arts + Design or other interested individuals if the artist declines to take custody. Wyland argues the mural would likely not remain intact if he tries to move it.
In February 2020, the Design Review Board approved Dornin’s plans for the site, which include covering the existing mural wall. Instead, he plans to use the wall space to advertise future tenants.
Steve Creech, president of Wyland Foundation, said in a phone interview Thursday that he and Wyland have no recollection of receiving notice about the planned demolition.
“The first we heard about this was yesterday,” Creech said. “I just feel that is really disingenuous.”
Creech pointed out that millions of visitors have seen the gray whale mural as they depart Laguna Beach, signaling the city’s decades-long commitment to protecting its marine environment and wildlife.
“If that’s not the textbook definition of public art, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Wyland Foundation staff and about a dozen supporters held a press conference Friday in the parking lot adjacent to the mural. Wyland was out of the state on Friday, Creech said.
Laguna Beach resident Lynette McCall came out to demonstrate against the mural’s demolition with a sign reading “Save This Wall” because she’s been a fan of Wyland’s work since she moved to town in 1993.
“The first thing I saw when I came out here was the ocean and this whale,” she said. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”
About 10 minutes into Creech’s speech, a Laguna Beach police officer asked the group to leave, saying the building owner wanted them off the property. In the absence of public parking spaces, several attendees parked their vehicles in red zones or in private lots.
“I think it’s a little extreme,” Creech said while standing on the road’s shoulder. “We’re talking about saving works of art and they’re bringing in squads of police officers. It’s kind of a new low.”