Sarah Schrank


On her book Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles

Cover Interview of March 19, 2009


Sometimes the most valuable public art is that which seems to fight itself.  Estrada Courts, a public housing project in East Los Angeles, grew famous for dozens of murals painted in the 1970s.  Directed by professional artists, the young residents of Estrada Courts, many of whom were members of a local street gang, painted huge and colorful murals with a range of historic and political themes.  There was much public acclaim from across the country, even from Gerald Ford, then President of the United States.  Nevertheless, many of the same kids who had painted the murals soon began tagging the walls with gang graffiti—what their murals were meant to cover.  Rather than vandalism, these acts demonstrate a complex sense of wall ownership and a social tension created by the discomfort of official attention and acclaim.

Art is not just something that people hang on their walls to match a piece of furniture or a multi-million dollar status symbol hung in a museum or plopped in front of a corporation’s main administration building.  In cities, public art is frequently a controversial way for the powerful to exert their power and for the powerless to have a voice.  We have to understand public art as part of an ongoing civic conversation, not simply the mass of a sculpture in the middle of a plaza.

© 2009 Sarah Schrank