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SLO City Council to ban public art of individuals in wake of Roosevelt controversy

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Monuments and statues honoring individual people will soon be explicitly prohibited on San Luis Obispo city property.

At a July 16 meeting, the SLO City Council agreed to amend the city's public art policy to exclude works of specific people. Council members argued that most individuals, especially those from history, are too complex and controversial to glorify.

CITY ART DEBATE The San Luis Obispo City Council plans to ban public art of specific people in favor of concept-based art like this anonymous Chinese rail worker at SLO's Amtrak station. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • CITY ART DEBATE The San Luis Obispo City Council plans to ban public art of specific people in favor of concept-based art like this anonymous Chinese rail worker at SLO's Amtrak station.

"Why would we step into lifting up individual people," SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon said, "who are undoubtedly complex, flawed people who have moments of genius and brilliance—no doubt—but also moments where [they made] incredibly bad decisions?"

Councilmember Andy Pease added that determining which subjects were worth honoring on scarce public property would be a challenge.

"We don't have that much space," Pease said.

The city policy amendment—which will come back to the council for approval at a future date—would likely thwart one local group's hopes to install a monument of Theodore Roosevelt in Mitchell Park.

Proposed as a tribute to the former president, his 1903 visit to SLO, and his conservation legacy, the monument sparked a contentious community debate that swirled around Roosevelt's views and policies toward Native Americans and other minorities.

It spurred the July 16 City Council policy discussion on public art.

"I was baffled," John Ashbaugh, who heads the Roosevelt monument committee, said about the City Council's direction. "I think they have a complete misunderstanding of the nature of this project. I think they have fallen prey to the contemporary slander that's been directed at not just Theodore Roosevelt, but virtually everybody who's contributed to American history."

At the meeting, Harmon said that honoring historic U.S. leaders is inherently problematic and pointed to recent cases nationwide of monuments coming down or sparking conflict.

"I think it's essential we know our history," Harmon said, "but the celebration of our cultural heritage often contributes to discrimination and lifting up of racism because the history of the United States is rooted in white supremacy."

Councilmember Erica Stewart agreed that erecting monuments to specific people today could create problems for the city down the road.

"One person who is fabulous today, maybe isn't so fabulous later; it's just how life goes," Stewart said. "We find out more information about someone."

Public art in SLO will celebrate "ideas and ideals," not specific people, the council decided.

"My strong feeling on this is that our policy reflect the true values and heart of this city. To not lift up individuals at all, but to instead celebrate the ideas and ideals that make this community what it is," Harmon said.

In addition to agreeing to prohibit art of individuals, the City Council also asked to add a diversity and inclusion "value statement" into SLO's policy. The statement wouldn't serve as criteria for art, but rather as a suggestive "lens" for artists and the city to use as projects are proposed.

"I think if we add it into our value set, that might be helpful to move the needle," Harmon said.

One council member, Carlyn Christianson, opposed the art policy direction. She criticized it as reactionary and an overreach.

"I do not want to make a policy that basically eliminates entire genres of art. I don't believe in doing that," Christianson said. "I also think it's incredibly dangerous to formulate policy with a specific project in mind."

Ashbaugh, who was on the SLO City Council from 2008 to 2016, told New Times that despite the council's decision, he will continue to work on the project. He said it's earned "substantial" community support, and that the group is exploring "a variety of options" for moving forward, including reframing it as tribute to the local environmental movement.

"We feel strongly that the project deserves a hearing, and we are dismayed that the council has taken this action, which appears to be precipitous, arbitrary, capricious, and completely unwarranted," he said.

In a swipe at Harmon and a nod to the 26th president, Ashbaugh also said it's plausible that Harmon wouldn't be where she is today if Roosevelt hadn't come to town to deliver a conservation-themed speech in Mitchell Park. That, in his view, helped plant the seed for SLO County's environmentalism.

"It's quite possible she would have never been elected herself," Ashbaugh said. "Roosevelt is part of a long continuum of community leaders and activists who brought us to the place we are today." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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