San Luis Obispo's public art policy is receiving new scrutiny



San Luis Obispo city officials tweaked language of the city’s public art policy, and set the stage to do away with at least one piece of public art that drew controversy.

On Feb. 3, SLO city councilmembers voted unanimously to approve changes to the public art policy. It was last updated in mid-2011, and the new policy language provides more clarity on how the city will handle temporary public art, as well as maintenance of the 32 painted utility boxes scattered around SLO.

Councilmembers made their own adjustments as well, inserting additional clarity on an informal appeal process when the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee and Architectural Review Committee can not agree on a piece 
of art.

Mayor Jan Marx asked to specifically add a prohibition on art that includes drug-related content. She alluded to a painting on a utility box that depicts someone smoking something that “may or may not be tobacco.” All councilmembers agreed, though Councilman Dan Rivoire suggested refining the language to prohibit depictions of illegal drugs, as 
the looser definition would have prohibited artists from depicting the 
local wine culture.

Only resident Don Hedrick and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson raised any concerns over the drug language. Christianson said the content-related discussions seemed a little problematic, but she didn’t think it 
hurt either.

At the close of the meeting, Marx brought up a potentially controversial painting again, and asked that the City Council have a scheduled discussion about removing the art and replacing it with something else.

The art in question, designed by Alister Dippner, is located on a utility box at the corner of Broad and Pismo streets. It’s a color-drenched painting of an abnormally big-headed bicyclist and a cup of steaming coffee. It has also reportedly been visually mocking the neighborhood for years, according to at least one resident. In a letter to city staffers, Peg Pinard said that residents who live near the box did not get a chance to provide input on the design, and she accused city officials of violating the general plan.

“Just to refresh your memory and for benefit of new council members, this is the inappropriate ‘art’ that just showed up one morning outside our homes,” Pinard wrote.

In 2012, former New Times Arts Editor Anna Weltner described Dippner’s work as “vivid paintings and drawings resembling gonzo-style children’s book illustrations,” adding that his piece in an art show was a “work of cartoonish charm and vertiginous psychedelia.”

Marx recommended that anyone watching the city council meeting Google Dippner’s name to get a sense of the artist’s style.

“You’ll be able to see the kind of art that he does,” she said.

Dippner and Pinard could not be reached for comment before press time.

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