Guest Editorial: Citizens Sidelined

Since incorporating in 1959, Del Mar has depended on citizen participation and volunteerism. In fact, we expect it. We have always been fortunate to have an outsized share of expertise in many areas – science, medicine, education, the environment, finance, design, art.


Our system of community participation is strong. Currently, in addition to the Design Review Board and Planning Commission, we have the Arts Advisory Committee, Finance Committee, Measure Q Citizen Oversight Committee, Parks & Recreation Committee, Lagoon Committee, Shores Advisory Committee, Sustainability Advisory Committee, Traffic & Parking Advisory Committee, and Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee. Periodically, ad hoc committees are appointed to address pressing issues. Each committee is assigned City Council member liaisons and staff support. This system worked well, up until recently when the current City Council majority began ignoring the recommendations of certain volunteer advisory committees in order to assert its own political will or meet the wishes of a narrow band of political supporters.


We saw that in 2021, with the Undergrounding Project Advisory Committee (UPAC), when the Council majority jumped Tewa ahead of UPAC-identified (and Council-adopted) priority neighborhoods. In response, UPAC members resigned, but their principled stand seemed to have little impact.


On May 1, we again saw the same disrespect in action, as the Art Advisory Committee (AAC) put forth its recommendations for a process to choose a major work of outdoor sculpture for the Civic Center. With a goal of finding world-class artworks that would complement the architecture and make a strong artistic statement, the AAC carefully researched potential works. Three were recommended for consideration, two by Isamu Noguchi, and one by Carol Bove. The AAC also secured generous donors to fully fund the project: Del Mar resident Marc Brutten and the Del Mar Foundation.


Following the City’s Public Art Policy, AAC Chair Bonnie Grossman presented the AAC’s recommendations on April 3, for Council approval of a process for public comment on the recommended artworks, and the Council approved a public comment process. However, despite the 5-0 vote, instead of launching the comment process, the City put the issue back on the May 1 Council agenda, for reasons not explained to the public. This should have been an easy vote for the Council: to simply approve the public review process spelled out in the Art Policy and let the public chips fall where they might.


But five days before the meeting, Hershell Price sent out to the community a provocative e-blast deriding the works. A flurry of red dots resulted: 21 supporting, 17 opposed, and six expressing concerns, but supporting a public comment process. The three-member majority of Martinez, Gaasterland, and Quirk, while proclaiming how much they “love art,” voted to not to follow the Public Art Policy process for public review of the AAC-recommended art. Instead, they asserted that the relative handful of red dots, ginned up by a private email full of misinformation, was a basis not only to reverse their prior vote, but also to kill the proposal outright. The Council majority sided with their political allies, and the AAC is no longer authorized to work on permanent artwork for the Civic Center.


Art in public places is often controversial, even in the largest, most sophisticated cities. Yet it is also almost always true that, with time, the most reviled public monuments become the most appreciated. At first, Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower, calling it “a gigantic black smokestack” that would ruin the beauty of Paris. It is now the worldwide symbol of the City of Lights. Nearly a century later, an immense Picasso sculpture was installed in Chicago, horrifying many Chicagoans. Today that 50-foot sculpture is one of Chicago’s beloved public art icons … and a tourist magnet. For decades, right here in San Diego County, civic leaders have recognized the power and value of the arts to elevate communities. Permanent public artworks are found all over our County – engaging, thought-provoking enhancements to the built and natural environments. Why were Martinez, Gaasterland, and Quirk so afraid of their own process that they simply shut down Del Mar’s AAC with their 3-to-2 vote?


Successful public art is the confluence of many things: the genius of the artist, the appropriateness and scale of the site, the chance to engage citizens of all ages. The proposed works for Del Mar met those criteria. But one more factor is required: courageous, open-minded public officials, willing to trust experts and not be afraid of a little criticism from their political allies or arts naysayers. What a shame that these three “leaders” turned their backs on an extraordinary gift and a chance for our city to be graced by a sculpture created by one of the 20th century’s greatest artists.


Ed note: Anne Farrell, a Del Mar resident for 37 years, has served on the DRB, Historical Preservation Committee, and Ad Hoc Design Development Committee. An art historian by academic training, she worked in art museums for 34 years.