In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: City pols should keep nose out of art

I like my politicians to stay as far away as possible from my art.

The nature of elected officials and the interests to which they’re beholden are about as removed from the process of artistic creation as it gets.

So I cringed when Hollywood commissioners and the mayor made a big deal at a recent meeting about their dislike of the wonderful jazz-inspired mural that Miami artist Lebo created for a wall in downtown Hollywood’s Young Circle.

Commissioner Patricia Asseff called Bee-Bop into Outer Space, featuring jazz musicians and burrowing owls, “too abstract” (whatever that means) and warned that “we don’t want it to start looking like a ghetto over there.”

Given that Lebo patterned the musical figures from African textile design, the commissioner’s comments to Miami Herald reporter Carli Teproff, and similar remarks she made at a meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency last Wednesday, smack of racism.

“The word ghetto is wrong,” Asseff conceded in an interview with me Tuesday. “I never looked at it as black or green. I love jazz. I love the black people. It’s more like urban art and that’s not us. We’re a seaside village … a bedroom community.”

The commissioner, a Realtor and longtime Hollywood resident, just doesn’t get that Lebo didn’t paint anything offensive or inappropriate. Or that extending a public art commission doesn’t mean the government tells an artist what to paint.

At the meeting, she asked, not exactly in an admiring way: “Are we Wynwood now?”

Downtown Hollywood could only hope to achieve a sliver of the artistic accomplishments of Miami’s Wynwood, where stunningly painted walls — works by local and international artists — have helped turn what was a worn-down borough of warehouses and junkyards into a must-see destination.

In fact, Hollywood — in a quest for rejuvenation during the last decades with more downs than ups — can take a few lessons from its neighbors to the south.

Legitimate cultural hubs — places where the arts blossom and elevate the community — more often than not start out organically, from the inside, not as government-designed and approved projects.

Lincoln Road rose out of its ramshackle state of the 1980s after artists took advantage of cheap rents and set up shop, giving the area charm and enough appeal to lure restaurants and specialty shops.

Likewise, Wynwood evolved into an internationally celebrated spot visited by the hippest (and wealthiest) contemporary art collectors after artists began renting industrial spaces, and galleries followed them there.

Contrary to the opinion of Hollywood politicians, well-heeled art collectors are not afraid of venturing into areas with lively graffiti-styled art. In Wynwood, the walls serve as a unique backdrop to gourmet restaurants, art galleries and a host of other creative business ventures.

Hollywood has all the makings of a place where the spark of art could spur the development of an interesting destination: location, a bit of funk (even if it feels stuck in a 1950s-60s vibe), and real estate prices friendly to creative types.

But it’s going to take visionary leaders and developers who let the art scene evolve — and support it, letting the artistic process run its course. In its best form, art doesn’t conform to parameters but pushes and expands them.

In that process, government has a constructive role and public art commissions such as the Downtown Hollywood Mural Project that commissioned Lebo’s work are desired and necessary.

But vigilance over the content of the art by political leaders only shows intellectual immaturity — and will turn off serious artists like Lebo. Leave the work of channeling artistic vision to curators and public art experts.

“I’d rather ask for forgiveness than for permission,” Lebo told me Tuesday.

Not that he needs to ask for any.

If city officials had any knowledge about art, they would have known that Lebo, aka David Le Batard, is not the kind of artist who produces artwork to match your couch. He’s not going to pep it up, Romero Britto-style, with mass-produced hearts and polka-dots.

But you can’t turn away from Lebo’s distinctive and harmonious work inspired by street art. You know it’s a mural by Lebo before you spot the signature.

And that’s art.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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