Nov. 14 2012 01:42 PM

Artists remain unhappy about a public-art project that was supposed to be so much different

A detail shot of Philip Matzigkeit and Neil Shigley’s mural that ended up on the site.
Photo by Xavier Vasquez

Blink or change lanes while driving east or westbound on State Route 94—the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway—and you might miss a glimpse of a new mural depicting King that adorns a large retaining wall between Home and Euclid avenues. Judging from the opening reception at Market Creek Plaza, many in the community are happy to have a piece of artwork commemorating King; however, artists who submitted alternative proposals for the site in 2004 see the mural as a regrettable result of an unfair and mistake-riddled process.

"I don't believe the public was served with this public art," said Wick Alexander, shaking his head.

Alexander, Gerda Govine and Luis Ituarte were members of one of three teams selected out of a pool of 23 to compete in the conceptual-design phase for the "Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Artwork" project, funded with a $300,000 federal grant awarded to Caltrans in 2002 and administered by the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture. On a stipend of just $3,000, the team spent six months collecting community input, researching options for the site and putting together a project that would stand out.

Their team was up against other talented artists—one group led by Lynn Schuette, the other led by Philip Matzigkeit. Matzigkeit and his teammate, famed Los Angeles public artist Judy Baca, had put together an impressive, animated computer rendering of their proposal: three large and stunning laser-cut-steel sculptures, wall paintings and a children's garden filled with native plants and images drawn by kids from around the world and sandblasted into stones.

Alexander said the artist-selection panel seemed so visibly impressed by Matzigkeit and Baca's presentation that his team immediately felt as if they'd already lost.

Matzigkeit and Baca told the panel that they'd decided to split the project into two phases: One of the phases met the approximately $200,000 budget, but the other phase went well beyond the allocated funds. The other two teams followed standard procedure and proposed more modest projects that met the budget, which, for the challenging site chosen by Caltrans—a large wall jutting up from an extremely steep slope— was considered small and limiting by all the artists.

Despite the unusual request for additional funding, the panel voted the project through; Dana Springs, public art program manager for the Commission for Arts and Culture, said the panel based its vote in part on the assumption that more money could be raised through grants or private donations.

After the panel's decision, CityBeat received a copy of a letter sent to the city from artist and activist Jihmye Collins, who'd served as a community representative on the artist-selection panel. Among other complaints, Collins, who died in 2011, voiced concerns about comparing projects with such vastly different budgets. Schuette's team also sent a letter expressing concerns about the fairness of the process. In June 2006, CityBeat published a cover story that explored the issues and delved into San Diego's history when it comes to commemorating King.

Filmmaker Xavier Vasquez is working on a documentary that will examine that history and the drama surrounding the latest King memorial; the film is scheduled to be finished early next year.

"The idea or intent isn't to stir up trouble for anyone," Vasquez said in an email. "I just think that there are numerous stories that need to be told." 

The price tag on Matzigkeit's project, Springs and a spokesperson for City Council President Tony Young confirmed, eventually grew to roughly $800,000—four times the available budget—in part because of further challenges presented by the site. Years passed, the economy crashed and the extra funds for the project never materialized.

The project languished, and in late 2011, Caltrans notified the city that the 10-year deadline for the federal grant was quickly approaching. The city either needed to move on the project or lose the money.

The city chose to streamline. Matzigkeit and Baca were asked to come up with a new proposal that could be done with the roughly $170,000 left over in the project's budget (the balance went to the city and Caltrans for administrative costs and to Matzigkeit for initial planning). Baca declined to participate, but Matzigkeit came up with the mural, which takes inspiration from the original proposal by depicting three different images of King: the reverend leading the Selma-to-Montgomery march, an image of King preaching and an image of him in prayer. The portraits were rendered as woodcuts by artist Neil Shigley. Matzigkeit also added a music component and commissioned SDSU music professor Richard Thompson to compose a song inspired by King.

Baca said she dropped out because she didn't want her name associated with a "spray-can piece on Dr. King." She's done a mural on a Caltrans wall in Los Angeles before, she said, and watched as it chipped away from harsh conditions and lack of maintenance. Baca partly blames the problems on Caltrans for driving up the cost of the project by not allowing her team to attach the steel cutouts to the retaining wall, forcing them to come up with expensive alternatives (she also disputes the $800,000 estimate, saying they originally came up with much lower numbers). She's upset with the way things turned out and says she still hasn't been paid for years' worth of work.

"Is it better that we have something rather than nothing?" Baca asked. "I would say, Yes, it's important to have something. But is it the dream we wanted to see happen? No…. I'm disappointed that it ended up being this particular kind of work instead of something more substantive."

Alexander, Govine and Ituarte are also glad that some kind of memorial ended up on the site. But, they said that based on the feedback they got from several community workshops they attended as part of the original proposal process, and through their own outreach efforts (Govine went to African-American churches and schools to gather input), the preference in 2006 was for a unique work of art that would stand out from other King commemorations.

"The community was very clear about not wanting just another mural," Alexander said. "They wanted something that was going to create an effect that really expressed Martin Luther King's ideals and not another hero-worship mural."

One can't help but wonder what would have happened had Matzigkeit and Baca proposed the mural and song during the competitive process years ago. Would it have won? What would the community members who showed up at those public meetings have said about it?

"Since adequate funding was never forthcoming, the ‘anything but a mural' requirement became ‘nothing but a mural,'" Matzigkeit wrote to CityBeat in a Facebook message, briefly explaining his proposal's metamorphosis. He declined to be interviewed further.

Springs said the final iteration did take community feedback into consideration. Matzigkeit did a good job of interpreting the comments from the original proposal process, she said, and the commission did take the new proposal back to certain city and neighborhood officials for feedback—although she acknowledged that the tight deadline kept the commission from going through the rigorous community-input process all over again.

"I think we ended up with a really beautiful piece," Springs said. "We have not received one negative comment."

But Alexander, Govine and Ituarte aren't ready to move on just yet. Govine said she believes the losing teams are owed an apology. Ituarte said he feels the city turned King's iconic dream into a nightmare. Alexander said he thinks the community was hurt the most.

"What we ended up with is yet another Martin Luther King Jr. mural, and we were asked from the very beginning to come up with a project that was going to make San Diego proud—put us on the map— and it ended up being not that at all," Alexander said. "The project that ended up winning was what I consider a bait-and-switch."

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