Stopping a Movement While Saving Its Art

Los Angeles government officials are preserving some of the art created during Occupy Wall Street, the first major city to do so

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Carol Wells/Center for the Study of Political Graphics

Though the history of Occupy Wall Street is still being written, some of the movement's artwork is already receiving attention from preservationists.

While there are multiple efforts to organize local gallery shows for the tent cities' protest art, Los Angeles is taking the unusual step of organizing a preservation process for a major mural created in its encampment. It is the first major city to do so.

The massive four-sided mural, painted on plywood erected to protect a park fountain from vandalism, is awaiting a caretaker after the Department of Cultural Affairs removed it under the watchful eye of a conservator. The mural isn’t just a visual depiction of the protesters’ perspective. Its physical creation echoes the movement as well, with multiple anonymous artists contributing to the work.

One side of the mural depicts the Federal Reserve as a monstrous octopus, ravenously grabbing cash from foreclosed homes, while exhorting viewers to "Take the Power Back."

The other sides are a hodge-podge of protest images, icons and graffiti, recalling the vibrant murals and chaotic street art of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl. "It’s site specific to L.A.," says Carol Wells, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. "It documents L.A.’s part in an international movement."

The mural was removed under orders from the Mayor’s Office and is now in storage downtown at C. Erwin Piper Technical Center, where the city’s archives are kept. The city took possession of the mural following the swift (and, many argued, unnecessarily harsh) eviction of the protestors from their camp outside City Hall in late November.

The mural's preservation is thanks to the efforts of Matthew Rudnick, a budget bureaucrat with no formal art education but with a keen sense of historical import. During the park clean up, Rudnick coordinated efforts between General Services, (which was responsible for cleaning the park), and the Department of Cultural Affairs. "It would be a tragedy to have it thrown away," says Rudnick. "The work is dynamic."

Rudnick’s role in saving the mural highlights the irony of the city stepping in to save it. "It undermines the message of the mural of government as a faceless, uncaring entity," says Johanna Blakely, Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center, a media-focused think tank in Los Angeles. "There was a real person in government who decided to save this thing."

The Department of Cultural Affairs is now beginning the process of finding a permanent home for the mural. Interested parties will soon be invited to submit offers to display the mural publicly.

It’s relatively new terrain but one the city viewed as necessary for an artwork that had become an emblem. "We felt giving it to a [caretaking] entity without a public process would come back to haunt us," says Olga Garay-English, Executive Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs. "It’s more appropriate to have a transparent system in place."

Despite the tension between the protesters and the city following the eviction, there seems to be agreement that the city can and should play an active role in protecting the art. "It’s an acknowledgement that our physical occupation was more than a political statement," says Gia Trimble, one of the protesters. "It proves you don’t have to be marching to make a political statement. You can also express ideas through art."

All images courtesy by Carol Wells of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

About the Author

  • Marissa Gluck is a writer based in Los Angeles.