Located down a quiet, dead-end street in the city of Commerce, there's a juvenile hall that holds something beautiful. Just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, the Dorothy Kirby Juvenile Center's exterior gives no hint of what lies within its institutional surroundings.
Inside, a guard sits behind thick glass in the lobby waiting room, buzzing in visitors. But beyond a large steel door and a cinder-block hallway with sickly fluorescent lights waits Cheryl Jackson, a genial African-American woman, the center's assistant director. On this sunny December day, she takes on the unlikely role of architectural tour guide.
Passing through a door at the end of the corridor, Jackson enters a sun-filled interior courtyard surrounded by low-slung housing blocks and administrative buildings. Their clean, simple lines recalled prominent midcentury SoCal architects such as John Lautner, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.
"The aesthetics couldn't be more beautiful," Jackson beams.
The facility gives the impression of a boarding school or college campus more than a place of incarceration. This is exactly what architect Samuel E. Lunden had in mind when he designed the complex — originally the Las Palmas School for Girls — in 1960. "Supervisor John Anson Ford told me he wanted something nice for the girls," Lunden told the L.A. Times in 1988. "'Make it pleasant, not like a jail,' he said, and that's what we did." Lunden felt it was one of his best projects.
In the center of the courtyard sits the chapel, an odd, pyramidlike structure that slopes back from a flat, trapezoidal façade, which is set back from the concrete shell. The lower third of the façade is composed of triangular tiles, while the upper portion is made of stained glass. Jackson says the chapel is important for the rehabilitation of the 100 or so boys and girls who stay there. "They volunteer to come to services," she says. "They want to be here." It is simple and stark, something akin to a Brutalist A-frame. Inside the intimate space, low pews flank a central aisle, and space-age triangular lamps hang from the ceiling. Turn around, and the stained glass breaks the streaming sunlight into dazzling geometric blocks of color.
"It's very tranquil and very peaceful," says Dwain Miller, a Catholic lay minister who has held services at the chapel for two decades. The interfaith chapel is used as a place of worship for many religions — Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim and Jewish — depending on the needs of residents. "It's very conducive to their healing. The kids will ask, 'Where is God, why isn't God answering my prayers?' and I tell them, 'He's here, guys. You just have to open up and let him in. He's not going anywhere.'"
Center director Michael Varela says they are really fortunate to have the chapel at the center of Kirby. "It could be used as an auditorium, but we don't use it for anything else but religious service," he says. "That would take away that sacred feeling."
This hidden sacred space tucked away in an anonymous government complex could have been forgotten if it hadn't recently been rediscovered by an incredibly ambitious L.A. County project that has turned our region's myriad cities into one huge treasure hunt.
Launched in 2015, an intrepid team of researchers, registrars and art sleuths embarked upon the uninspiringly titled Civic Art Baseline Inventory. But the scope of the project is exciting, as the team tirelessly searches the county's unassuming institutions and public spaces, spreading out over hundreds of L.A. County sites in 88 municipalities across 4,000 square miles, looking for inspiring art that has been commissioned or donated over the 166-year history of Los Angeles.
Significantly, this is the first large-scale survey of the county's art collection ever attempted. Before the inventory began, it was hard to determine exactly what the county had in its collection. "Unfortunately, we don't have a secret warehouse of art," jokes Clare Haggarty, the civic art collections manager, who oversees the entire project. Now they have compiled a list of 900 sites most likely to have art from the total list of thousands of county facilities. "Art is less likely to be in water towers or restrooms," Haggarty says.
The artwork includes recent commissions by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; some has been donated over the years, and some of it was funded by individual county departments such as the public library, the fire department or health services.
So far, the project has rediscovered art deco masterpieces, colorful murals and experimental sculptures, and the researchers have revisited recent pieces — by artists such as Shepard Fairey, Alison Saar and Sandow Birk — to check on their physical condition. Some of their findings are documented on the County Art Commission's blog, which turns the entire county into one massive art exhibition, open for the public to experience.
"When I saw that chapel, I was just blown away," says Bridget Campos, who for the past 18 months has been traveling to hundreds of facilities cataloging the county's art collection. "It's a beautiful piece of midcentury modern architecture and stained glass. We didn't even know it was there."
Campos is a field registrar, and she is the sole person tasked with scouring hospitals, courthouses, public parks and fire stations in search of undiscovered masterpieces, both highbrow and low, reflecting the diversity of L.A.'s rich cultural heritage. The county currently has nearly 300 confirmed artworks in its civic art collection; however, in the past year and a half, Campos has already logged more than 1,500 works.
"Even as a kid, I always knew that I wanted to work in a museum, but I didn't know how to get there," Campos says. "I saw a documentary about the Smithsonian Collection and how 80 percent of it, the public never sees. I was like, 'Oh my God, I want to do that!'"
Campos' explorations have taken her all over the county, including to one particularly unexpected locale: the coroner's office in Lincoln Heights. As part of every site visit Campos makes, she must thoroughly search each facility, looking for public artworks that she knows are there, as well as hidden or forgotten pieces.
At the coroner's office, Campos says she was aware of Pentimento — a exterior wall lined with 300 blue, handblown glass bells by Erin Shie Palmer, which provides a meditative chorus when the wind blows — but did not know what else to expect. Campos traversed the coroner's marble halls — past visitors grieving recently deceased loved ones, past medical examiners and police officers — looking for any previously unknown works. This took her to the basement where the cadaver dog is kept; to the autopsy room; and to the humorously morbid gift shop, Skeletons in the Closet. "I grew up in California, so I had to learn to ask about basements," she says of her search techniques. "We don't have basements!"
Then she stumbled on an amazing find. In a waiting room, she found an original poster celebrating East L.A. street life, signed by artist Vidal Herrera, something of a local celebrity. A former investigator for the coroner's office, Herrera has taken up more artistic pursuits since retiring, such as making couches out of repurposed caskets. "I wanted to illustrate our cultura, or popular culture, the flavor and colorfulness of our everyday life and what makes us distinctly Chicanos," Herrera once wrote of the piece.
Campos studied art history, and after receiving her M.A. in textile collections management from Cal State Long Beach went to work as a registrar for the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, taking on a basket rehousing project. Although she grew up in Orange County, in Huntington Beach, Campos had an early connection to L.A. through family, so the county inventory project seemed like a perfect fit for her. "The history of L.A. is really interesting to me. I kind of grew up with it, so combining an art collection with the history of L.A. was exciting," she says. "I go into places that most people can't, and touch things that most people can't."
The county's collection includes large-scale sculptures and murals by well-known artists commissioned by the Civic Art Program, as well as small handcarved works and paintings created by county employees who use these facilities every day. Most of the pieces date from the 1930s to the present, with a few from the 19th century and one basket that is presumably hundreds if not thousands of years old.
One of the newest commissions is Embodied, a 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture by famed artist Alison Saar, which sits outside the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice downtown. Instead of the typical blindfolded figure of Justice with sword and scales, Saar's sculpture holds a book in one hand and a dove in the other.
"What I wanted to do was make it a warmer, more inclusive Justice and put stress on education and knowledge, as opposed to swords and chopping heads off," the Los Angeles–based artist says. "Even the scales are meant to represent equality, but it's a monetary scale. Part of the truth of our justice system is that if you have money, there's a different justice available to you than if you don't. The sword and the scales were two things I wanted to avoid. I included this large book to talk about this idea of justice within knowledge and the freedom you get with knowledge. The dove shows the justice system as a way of making peace as opposed to punishment."
The towering figure's dress is imprinted with 200 words related to justice in more than a dozen languages, which Saar collected from conversations with the staffs of the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department, students at local schools and visitors to nearby Grand Park. "I want people to come there and feel like their voice is part of it," Saar says. This diversity also is reflected in the figure's face, the features of which are a composite of numerous L.A. ethnicities. "Her features are a combination of African-American, Chinese and Hispanic features. We're so used to these blond, blue-eyed ideas of Justice, so I wanted to turn that on its head as well."
Many of the commissions are sited in buildings that can be trying, stressful spaces for the people who use them: hospitals, courthouses, detention centers, facilities that provide social services. To serve the public, the artworks need to provide some measure of comfort, relief or escape from the daily tensions that brought people there. Located in a 220,000-square-foot county administration building in South L.A., Ken Gonzales-Day's California Landscape does just that, providing a pastoral refuge from bureaucratic tedium. Beginning outside on the street, and winding throughout the four-story building, the artist has placed murals composed of photographic glazed tiles depicting landscapes of California oaks, which have been digitally manipulated into repeating patterns.
"Previous to that building, people needing city services needed to go all over L.A. This facility serves South Central primarily. It was the first public building built in that area of the city," Gonzales-Day says. "This was a big thing for that part of the city to get some services that were needed." The building houses four county departments, from Children and Family Services to Mental Health, bringing together a diverse group of 1,200 workers and 1,400 visitors a day. "Different clients for the building might be coming from very different emotional and cultural places in terms of their needs," the artist says, highlighting the importance of his work's broad appeal.
Located on the parking garage but facing the building is a massive 68-by-18-foot kaleidoscopic image of tree branches, which provides a meditative moment. "If you were having an emotionally challenging day, my hope is that seeing this structure might be akin to looking up through the trees, or some other physiological experience," Gonzales-Day says. And the center's clients seem to agree, as one woman told the L.A. Times when the building opened in 2008: "It makes it look peaceful, even though it may not be. You come here and it's a headache."
Hospitals are another location where public art can mediate the challenges inherent in the site. "With a Little Help From My Friends" by Shepard Fairey — perhaps best known for his Obama "Hope" poster — is both wayfinding graphic and brightly colored visual welcome for patients on the pediatric and adolescent floor of the LAC + USC Medical Center. Images of birds in decorative rondels flow into pointing triangles, which give way to stylized floral filigrees, providing a moment of escape from illness that in itself can prove beneficial to healing.
In the same medical complex, but separated by decades, is one of the oldest pieces in the county's collection: a set of ceiling frescoes that dates from 1932, inside the lobby entrance to the old County General Hospital. Painted by Hugo Ballin — who also created murals in the Griffith Park Observatory and Wilshire Boulevard Temple — the frescoes depict Greek medical and scientific figures. Gold leaf accentuates the dramatic scenes, which look surprisingly fresh and crisp. Revealing the changing nature of these buildings, the murals are no longer located at the main entrance; nonstaff visitors must use the new entrance before traversing the hospital's labyrinthine corridors to find this hidden jewel.
In addition to these more monumental commissions, the collection is full of offbeat, sometimes anonymous works. Firehouses are prime sites for unusual items created by the firefighters who live there. "There's one piece that is an American flag done with firehouses that looks like a Jasper Johns," Yvonne Lee, the civic art registrar, says.
Campos has discovered elaborately carved wooden shields by firefighter Stephen Messick in firehouses in Pasadena, West Hollywood and Bell Gardens.
In several county sheriff stations, painted portraits of fallen deputies line the halls. These range from stylized impressions to realistic countenances, perhaps painted by their colleagues in memoriam. Although some of the artists are unknown, a number of the canvases are attributed to master portrait artist Cassidy Alexander.
Perhaps the smallest work cataloged by Campos is a 3½-inch-square painting of the Cudahy Library by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer. "We believe he may have visited that library to do research," Lee says. "We've reached out to his representatives, but we haven't had confirmation yet."
Government-sponsored artwork has been an integral part of civic life in cultures throughout the world for centuries. By comparison, L.A. County's civic art program is relatively young. Dating back to 1947, the County Arts Commission was originally named the Music Commission (later the Los Angeles County Music and Performing Arts Commission) and, not surprisingly, was focused primarily on music, dance and theater. It wasn't until 1997 that it changed its name to the Arts Commission, reflecting its support of a full spectrum of disciplines. This comes in the form of arts education, funding of nonprofit arts organizations and the fairly new Civic Art Program.
Historically, public art has meant monuments to famous men, arches commemorating military victories or obelisks pilfered in conquest, while at the same time existing as symbols of civic pride. For the most part, contemporary public art has dispensed with the former while stressing the latter, not in a jingoistic manner but as a way of telling us who we are.
"Public art has power in public spaces," says Grace Ramirez Gaston, the Arts Commission's director of civic art. "This power emerges from the physical, personal and sociocultural experience that one has with it. It instills meaning to our identities. It heightens our awareness of where we live and work."
Instead of bombastic patriotic statements, the best contemporary public art is challenging and inquisitive, in conversation with its audience instead of delivering a monologue. It must walk the line between appealing to a diverse public and participating in art historical discourse.
The results are not always successful. Richard Serra's Tilted Arc is a textbook example of what happens when the desires of the artist don't match up with the demands of the public. Placed in New York's Federal Plaza in 1981, the 120-foot-long steel wall was removed eight years later after a vocal public outcry. More recently, Seward Johnson's Forever Marilyn, a 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn Monroe, white dress billowing as it did in The Seven-Year Itch, was widely reviled by critics when it made its debut in Chicago in 2011. Public reception has generally been more favorable, and it has since traveled around the world, to Palm Springs, New Jersey and now Australia. It stands as a curious example of a public sculpture without a public, or rather without a specific public, and perhaps its facile appeal lies precisely in its blank blandness.
The County Arts Commission's Civic Art Program was established in 2004, tasked with managing a new policy that would allocate 1 percent of the budget of county capital projects for civic art commissions. Even before the establishment of this program, however, individual departments such as Fire, Parks & Recreation and Health Services had been commissioning artwork for decades. The Civic Art Program also was mandated to take an inventory of the county's collection every five years, including works commissioned by the county and by individual departments, as well as those that had been donated.
"Our first inventory in 2009 was starting from scratch," says Haggarty, the civic arts collections manager. "We didn't know what the county already had. We had one person who did what she could with limited budget, going to as many sites as she could, making calls to various county departments. During that effort, 90 artworks were found, limited to permanently sited artworks, mainly murals and statues that aren't going anywhere."
Haggarty stressed that not all of the hundreds of objects that Campos has uncovered will end up in the county’s collection. The next step will be to review them to determine which ones definitively belong to the County and meet the accession criteria.
Although the number of potential artworks that Campos has located may seem like a lot, the county's actual collection is much smaller than those of New York, Philadelphia or even Seattle, according to Haggarty. The purpose of the inventory is not to find new locations for artwork, however, but to figure out what the county has and how to maintain it. "We're moving toward preventative maintenance, so we're not doing costly restorations in the future," she says.
They also are tasked with making sure which artworks belong to the county. "A lot of it is verification of provenance ... determining the ownership of these so we can go ahead and advocate for taking maintenance and conservation measures, which we can only do if we know that we're the stewards of the artwork," civic art registrar Lee says.
When it came time to complete their next inventory, they decided it needed to be more comprehensive and thorough. "When you make phone calls, no matter how many different ways you ask them if there's artwork in their facility, if you live with it, you may not notice it," Haggarty says. "It was imperative to physically visit these sites."
Every week for the past year and a half, Campos has set out on site visits to locations all over the county, each one a different experience. Some sites house works that have been recorded previously, while others are a complete mystery. "Some days she strikes gold and some days she doesn't," Haggarty says of Campos.
I meet up with Campos in the Antelope Valley, some 60 miles northeast of L.A., to follow her on a typical day of fieldwork, and at 8 a.m., our plans have already hit a snag. We've come to a hospital looking for butterflies, but they're nowhere to be found. Not actual butterflies but a sculpture of hundreds of hanging blue butterflies, located somewhere in the South Valley Health Center in Palmdale — but they aren't here.
Working with a database of a few hundred artworks that are known to belong to the county, Campos' mission is twofold: to issue condition reports on known artworks, and to record those previously unknown. Based on the small image on her iPad, Campos knows generally what she's looking for but not exactly where it's located in the large facility. A quick call to her contact at the hospital reveals that the work isn't located here but rather at the High Desert Regional Health Center in the neighboring town of Lancaster. And it's not made of butterflies at all.
After a 20-minute drive on quiet roads lined with Joshua trees and trucks selling tamales, we arrive at the HDRHC. Stepping into its majestic atrium, we look up to see three dazzling clouds composed of light blue forms hanging from the ceiling. Instead of butterflies, Brad Howe's One Desert Sky is actually composed of thousands of separate shapes: a rabbit, a fox, cars, flowers, a guitar, a coffee cup, a razor blade.
Before tackling the massive mobile, however, Campos wants to tour the entire building to see if there's any county artwork that hasn't been cataloged yet. As our guide leads us around the hospital's mazelike plan, Campos repeatedly asks, "Can I check in there?" and "What about that room?" This is not unusual.
"I really have to try and work a way to get in everywhere that I need to," she tells me later. "Definitely there are times when I have to tell them, 'I need to go in here,' and just be as nice as possible about it. Often, they don't fully understand why this is happening. It is a very unusual request to go into a mental health facility and say, 'I'm from the County Arts Commission.'"
It's not that county employees are hiding artwork, she explains, but that they may not even be aware of it. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, people just didn't even see it on the wall," she says. "They've worked there for so long, it's just not what they're thinking about."
At the East Los Angeles Civic Center, for example, a site rich with public art, Campos discovered a work that was hidden in plain sight. A mural painted by the Chicana Service Action Center in the 1970s depicting an empowering scene of workers, many of them women, adorned a wall inside the East L.A. Probation Office. Once completely visible, the mural now had cubicles and desks pushed up against it. "I was like, 'Oh, my God! This is here?' Because they've worked here the whole time, everyone was just like, 'Oh, yeah it's here,'" Campos says. "We had no idea."
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While it seems almost absurd to expect to find works of art in a juvenile probation center or a one-room library or a fire station, that is exactly where the county's art collection resides. That seems to be the point of these public pieces. They create moments of inspiration that interrupt a boring day at a Lancaster hospital or brighten the afternoon of commuters stuck in traffic, as they pass George Stanley's majestic, streamline moderne fountain at the entrance to the Hollywood Bowl.
The inventory is democratic in its approach to what constitutes art as well as audience. It supports the artistic merit of legendary painter Kent Twitchell, whose giant murals adorn the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, and edgy L.A. artist Sandow Birk, whose tilework appears on a Catalina lifeguard station. But it also seeks to preserve small paintings by unknown artists who anonymously donated their works to the county. After all, the collection belongs as much to the residents of Beverly Hills as to those of Boyle Heights. This art belongs to all of us. And between these hundreds of pieces, a kind of portrait of Los Angeles will come into focus, revealing our tangled, diverse history and reflecting who we are by the art we make.