Los Angeles Times

Monday, May 10, 1993

Home Edition

Section: Metro

Page: B-5

Southern California Voices / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Modest Proposal; Drive Through the Museum, Not To the Museum; What a California solution. Put fine art on freeways to enrich dull public space and knit neighborhoods together.

By: ANDREW BUSHAndrew Bush is a photographer who lives in Silver Lake.

A recent poll conducted by Research and Forecasts Inc. for the National Cultural Alliance indicated that most Americans have a high regard for the arts but the arts seldom touch their lives. Indeed, the hot topic of the 1990s for museum administrators and cultural committees is how to solve this problem of getting communities more involved with the arts. The theme of the recent California Governor's Conference on the Arts at the Los Angeles County Museum was "Building Community: Putting the Art in Partnership." Panels of cultural specialists discussed the integration of the arts into community through education, housing and social programs. If there was one common thread running through these discussions it was that nurturing individual artistic expression helps determine a community's sense of its own identity.

If art reflects the experiences of a particular time and place, then the shape and design of a museum should reflect a geographic and historical situation.

The car has changed the structure of the urban environment, but our definitions of public art and public space have changed little in the last 100 years. We have come to believe that public art should be permanent, graffiti-resistant and inoffensive. What it ought to be is just the opposite--an ever-changing script for an ever-changing cast of characters--a dialogue between the cultural communities of a city. In older, more compact cities like London or Boston, walking keeps people aware of other communities and interacting with other people. Entering public spaces in these cities, we are aware of the familiar stores and storekeepers that form an essential part of our notion of neighborhood.

In Los Angeles, urban sprawl and the speed of travel obliterate human interaction. On the freeway we encounter neither houses nor stores nor any other community references. We're subjected only to advertising billboards. Public space becomes a vacuum.

A freeway museum would change this. The idea is not so far fetched: Curators throughout the region have shown interest in it. There would be "galleries" throughout the freeway system, each gallery consisting of 15to 20 billboard-sized structures along a 5-mile to 10-mile stretch of highway. Their size, form, spacing and the manner in which they are constructed would be decided individually for each gallery. Structures aligned along the central corridor of traffic and higher than existing road signs would allow the driver to pay attention to the flow of traffic.

A rotating panel of curators would evaluate proposals for exhibitions. Some could be reproductions--a mini-retrospective of Matisse works, for example. Others would be originals: paintings or sculptures or photos, even stained glass. There would be group shows and retrospectives, community art, children's art, graffiti art, all types of high and low art. Art billboards could be equipped with tiny transmitters for radio tours. These would broadcast signals within a quarter-mile to passing traffic tuned to a certain frequency. Commercial advertisers already use these devices with billboard advertisements for recording artists.

Of course it would not be possible, unless there's a traffic jam, to step back and contemplate a work of art. But this shouldn't be a problem, since we've been looking at billboards long enough to know the perils of being distracted. Commuters would be able to see works of art over and over again--gaining a lasting impression in a way that a single visit to an existing museum cannot achieve. The exhibitions could achieve on a daily basis what the L.A. Arts Festival tries to do every three years: Provide a medium for appreciating the region's diverse cultural expressions.

The City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department already subsidizes many community art projects that give neighborhoods a sense of identity and self-worth. We now need to create a forum to encourage communities to learn about one another. A freeway museum has the potential to do this, exposing a multicultural population to diverse visual languages. We have publicly supported television and public radio; we can do the same for this vast public space, regarding the freeway as a unique medium for coming into contact with our neighbors rather than as a source of alienation.

GRAPHIC-DRAWING: Cars on freeway and roadside art; BLAIR THORNLEY / For The Times Type of Material: Opinion Piece