ESCONDIDO — The Escondido City Council plans to discuss funding and management options for the California Center for the Arts following the venue’s refusal to remove a piece containing derogatory terms against law enforcement from an ongoing exhibition.
In late June, the arts center launched “Street Legacy: So Cal Style Masters” featuring artwork from nearly 100 artists, including Shepard Fairey, founder of OBEY Clothing, and local artist Zane Kingcade, owner of Streetlife in downtown Escondido.
The showcase, curated by Bobby Ruiz, C.E.O. and co-founder of Tribal Streetwear, and G. James Daichendt, professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University, highlights Southern California’s subcultures, including elements of lowrider, surf, skate, tattoo, graffiti and more.
Immediately following the exhibit’s opening, many residents reportedly became outraged at artist OG Slick’s “Three Slick Pigs,” which features three Porky Pig-style statues wearing police uniforms and dancing in front of a large black-and-white photo of police officers wearing riot gear. Spray-painted on the large backdrop is the acronym “A.P.A.B.” — all police are bastards” or “all pigs are bastards.”
According to a statement released by OG Slick on Instagram, the artwork is “a satirical look at excessive police force and abuse of power by some individuals who hide behind the badge of the largest ‘gang’ in the U.S.”
“I used the (Three Little Pigs) fairytale as a representation of the current plight of our country, the big bad wolves being us, hunted down, beat down, robbed of our civil rights, illegally detained and even executed on site because of our skin color, our associations and social/economic status,” Slick writes. “They were here to protect us, but who protects us from them?”
Despite growing demands to remove the controversial artwork, the arts center kept the piece on display and released the following statement, that reads in part:
“The board voted to continue (California Center for the Arts’) support of the ‘Street Legacy: SoCal Style Masters’ exhibition and of the installation in question without removing, covering or otherwise editing it. In conjunction, the board also committed that (California Center for the Arts) will take a leadership role in brokering private and public discussions among the exhibit curators, artists, city leaders, community groups and others to further public education and foster the respectful exchange of ideas. As these plans are finalized, we will make announcements about ways the public can participate.”
Mayor Paul McNamara, who liked the exhibit’s overall portrayal of Chicano culture, felt OG Slick’s piece was out of place and disrespectful to law enforcement.
“I’m not saying the artist’s feelings are not legitimate or that his message is something we shouldn’t talk about, but blanketly putting out there that all police are bastards does not facilitate dialogue,” McNamara told The Coast News.
The mayor also took issue with the piece’s lack of context. For example, McNamara said each piece of art had a Q.R. code linking to the artist’s website or Instagram page. But not every work included an artist’s description.
“We’re trying to have a harmonious community, and that doesn’t mean we avoid controversy but if we talk about a sensitive subject, let’s make sure to put it in a context that people feel facilitates the dialogue,” McNamara said.
McNamara has reportedly received “hundreds” of emails from residents complaining about the piece and only a handful of people in favor of it.
Slick said his installation was “meant to open dialogue within our communities.”
“I grew up doing graffiti and my father was in law enforcement, so you can imagine the tension at the dinner table,” the artist writes. “I do understand the need for law and order in any society but the abuse of said institutions really gets under my skin.”
During a special council meeting on Jun. 27, Councilmember Michael Morasco requested to bring back a “possible funding” discussion regarding the arts center.
McNamara also noted at the meeting that he wanted to review the management relationship between the city and the performing arts center. Councilmember Joe Garcia agreed with the other two council members.
The city owns the center’s building and subsidizes about $3 million annually for utilities and maintenance needs. Still, the C.C.A.E. foundation runs the center’s operations.
The California Center for the Arts is a nonprofit organization independent of municipal control — the city does not review or approve any choices regarding on-site art installations.
The council considered possibly cutting the art center’s funding back in June as part of balancing the city’s operating budget, which at the time was projected at a $7 million deficit.
However, the council reinstated the center’s funding in June using COVID relief funds.
The council will bring the arts center for discussion at the Aug. 17 meeting.
“This is an item that the council has brought forward, so staff is not yet aware of what specifically the council wants to revisit or whether there will even be a staff report or if it’s simply council having a discussion,” said Michael Thorne, a city communications officer.
McNamara said he isn’t necessarily interested in taking away funding from the center but wants more information and better transparency regarding its use of city money.
“I don’t want to censor anyone but I also want to make sure we have some checks and balances here so we don’t have a public institution that’s dividing the city,” McNamara said.