Feb. 3 2015 06:20 PM

San Diego Museum of Art's Open Spaces produces another significant public-art project

Irma Esquivias (left) and Richard Luna at the Buena Vista underpass
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

A dark and intimidating underpass on Buena Vista Avenue in Lemon Grove will soon be colored with a large-scale mural.

The project is the latest result of the San Diego Museum of Art's provocative Open Spaces program, which seeks to place public art in underserved neighborhoods. Funded by a $530,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Open Spaces kicked off in Lincoln Park in 2013 and has since traveled to Logan Heights, Lemon Grove and National City.

Richard Luna, lead artist for the Lemon Grove project, has lived in the city for more than a decade. He says he's seen Lemon Grove's basic infrastructure and reputation improve, but one thing that hasn't changed is the nonexistent art scene. He says he hopes the new mural, an idea generated by Lemon Grove residents (disclosure: including me) through a series of community meetings, will inspire other art projects throughout the city, which is known for its large, gaudy lemon sculpture downtown.

"Hopefully, it'll trigger different projects in Lemon Grove other than paintings of lemons," he says of the mural, which was designed by Open Spaces artist-in-residence Miguel Angel Godoy as a string of vibrantly colored flowers and other nature scenes. "Everything we do here doesn't necessarily have to have a lemon theme."

Open Spaces project coordinator Irma Esquivias, who—in part by recruiting young kids at the local skate park to show up and provide input—made sure that a diverse group of residents showed up to the workshops, calls the Lemon Grove project "the most successful yet." She says the community was active in the process, and the city was a speedy facilitator. The last steps are submitting applications to Caltrans and hosting workshops in February that'll invite residents to help paint the mural.

However, Esquivias says the $30,000 budget for the project won't cover the landscaping or lighting that the community had requested to help the mural make more of an impact. The hope is that Caltrans or even local businesses may step up.

"People are still looking into how to make it happen," she says.

Other Open Spaces projects have seen varying degrees of success. The city of San Diego sent the Lincoln Park community back to the drawing board after residents submitted a preliminary proposal for a light sculpture at the intersection known as the "Four Corners of Death." Esquivias says Lincoln Park has already decided on a new project—positive word murals throughout the community—that's expected to meet easy approval.

In Logan Heights, the community chose to create an online radio station, Radio Pulso Del Barrio. The station recently moved into its office at Bread & Salt and is already broadcasting several shows. Meanwhile, the National City community is expecting to choose soon from among its top project proposals.

The biggest challenge for Open Spaces, Esquivias says, was the tight timeline, which was initially supposed to be just two years. The approval process for public-art projects can take months, she says, and building relationships in each community in such little time proved to be difficult.

"It's been quite the journey," she says. "But I've been so impressed with what's been done. The radio station—I mean, that was so innovative and progressive…. It's all been pretty cool to see."

A mock-up of the Lemon Grove mural by Miguel Angel Godoy


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