MODESTO -- Downtown Modesto has become ground zero for a debate over public art and whether the city should have guidelines for it.
Councilman John Gunderson, who dialogues with Facebook friends about public art, aired the issue before a council subcommittee Monday. Now, a task force is being formed to come up with guidelines and a process to approve or deny public art projects in Modesto.
Gunderson is expected to head the task force, which will include members from the city's Culture Commission, public art committee and the Downtown Improvement District. Also being asked to serve on the task force member is graffiti muralist Aaron Vickery, who painted the "American Graffiti"-inspired mural on a commercial building at 13th and J streets.
Gunderson is in favor of seeing more and different kinds of public art, whether it's murals reflecting the city's heritage or tasteful work done by graffiti artists. He contends, however, there should be guidelines for art on public and private property. "I am doing this because there is a demand," Gunderson said. "Downtown Modesto especially needs some art. It's just part of revitalization downtown."
Examples of public art in Modesto include the redevelopment-funded fountain at Tenth Street Place and Vickery's "Graffiti" mural, done in May on the J Street building housing the Peer Recovery Art Project.
More projects are in the works. Members of Commonwealth Modesto have talked with city officials about doing themed murals on commercial buildings. Gunderson is proposing a tile mural outside Tenth Street Place, and there's talk of dedicating a wall someplace for graffiti artists to do legal work.
At this point, none of the ideas involves public funding. Private or corporate donors would be sought.
Officials sense it is time to get rules on the books concerning public art. The task force is expected to study the issue, see what other cities are doing and report back to council members in January.
The city has no regulations on works of art on commercial buildings. Unless images promote a business or a product, they do not fall under the city's sign ordinance.
Gunderson said the task force will discuss quality standards for art and a process for getting projects approved at City Hall.
He said the task force also will deal with the inevitable content questions: whether it's appropriate for public art to portray gangs, sexuality or political messages.
"Obviously, something about Nazism would not be appropriate," Gunderson said. "How to define what is appropriate is the tricky part. We have to talk about it."
Because corporate sponsors are being sought to fund projects, another issue is whether to allow sponsors to put their logos on the art and how large the logos can be. Wells Fargo Bank gave a $2,000 grant for the "American Graffiti" mural and has a small logo on the work.
Gunderson, also a substitute teacher, is open to getting graffiti artists involved with public art projects. He noted that arts programs are being cut in schools and he wants to give disadvantaged young people an outlet.
But others aren't sure they want to give a canvas to graffiti artists. "Taggers have done a lot of damage in the community to commercial and residential property, and to reward them with a wall where they can (make graffiti art) I can't believe we are talking about it," Councilman Dave Lopez said.
Vickery said taggers are more likely to stop their illegal activity if they work on sanctioned projects. The former tagger who's now a Youth for Christ volunteer recalled that his first art sales convinced him to abandon illegal work. "It made me think I could do this as a business," he said.
Entertainment promoter Chris Ricci said he hopes the task force won't be too restrictive of public art. "The essence of art is free expression, so ideally whatever guidelines they choose will enable artists to express themselves," he said.
The task force will consider a 2008 master plan for a Modesto Public Arts Program. The 24-page plan included guidelines and an approval process for public art projects. It was shelved after getting no support from council members, said Alice Richards, chairwoman of the Culture Commission.
The plan suggested that the public arts committee, working under the Culture Commission, review arts projects. Artists would be chosen based on the quality of their past work, the "appropriateness of the proposal" and the likelihood of completing the work successfully.
Richards said the public arts committee should review any new projects. The committee has been responsible for efforts such as the handcar sculpture on the Virginia Trail. Approved proposals would move on to the Culture Commission, a council subcommittee and then the full council.