Part One: Vermonica Vanishes – The Story So Far
In November 2017, when an alert fan clued us in to the disappearance of Vermonica, Sheila Klein’s beloved vintage street light installation in East Hollywood, we provided the artist with a platform here on our blog to make a statement.
Vermonica’s disappearance wasn’t much of a mystery: the Bureau of Street Lighting, which owned the vintage light poles and had installed the work originally, admitted to removing it in advance of planned parking lot work, and had already reinstalled the poles in front of its Field Operations Division a block away.
Vermonica is a site specific sculpture, a response to the trauma of the 1992 L.A. Riots. Vermonica is named for Vermont and Santa Monica, the location of the Hollytron electronics store that was damaged by looters. Moving Vermonica without notifying the artist was an aesthetic crime, and using its parts to create an amateur replica compounded that crime.
Sheila Klein calls the light poles installed down the block from where Vermonica used to stand “xVermonica.”
She wanted to save Vermonica, and we thought we could help. So late in 2017, we worked to set up a meeting with numerous city officials, including Danielle Brazell (Department of Cultural Affairs), Barbara Romero (Deputy Mayor), Nicole Serrano (office of Mayor Eric Garcetti) and Christine Peters and George Hakopiants (Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office) and arts advocates Julie Silliman and Al Nodal, in order to to have a conversation with Sheila Klein (via Skype) about how to fix the situation.
It was a cordial meeting that concluded with the agreement that the city would work with the artist to restore Vermonica.
If you followed Vermonica in the news and read the statements from city officials or watched the Cranky Preservationist’s video, you were doubtless left feeling encouraged that the city was doing the right thing by Vermonica.
A good overview of the situation shortly after Vermonica was removed is “Can Street Art Be Moved Without Destroying It?” by Cara Giaimo (Atlas Obscura, January 24, 2018)
But as too often is the case when the city of Los Angeles is involved, despite encouraging words, time passed and nothing happened.
After a couple of months with no follow up, Sheila Klein engaged the services of lawyer Eric Bjorgum, who has litigated several cases regarding destroyed public art and who is also the President of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Bjorgum drafted a friendly introduction, reminding the players what had been said at the City Hall meeting, and seeking to get things moving towards the promised restoration and accession of Vermonica into the city’s collection.
The city responded in March 2018 by making the dubious legal claim that Vermonica is not actually a work of art, and thus not protected by artist’s rights protection law (VARA).
Since this message in March 2018, Sheila Klein has heard nothing from the city about its repeated promises to work with her to reinstall Vermonica, and to make the piece a protected part of the city’s art collection.
Which brings us up to date.
Now read on for the surprising twist, and what YOU can do to help.
Part 2: Vermonica Vanishes – The Secret History
On April 29, 2019, public transparency blogger Adrian Riskin of MichaelKohlhaas.org shared on Twitter that the Bureau of Street Lighting (BSL) had been added to the list of Los Angeles City departments for which California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests could be made through a web portal.
Adrian tweeted: “There must be something interesting to CPRA-fy from those folks”
Esotouric replied: “we’ll take Vermonica for $200, Alex.”
At this suggestion, Adrian promptly submitted a request for BSL emails related to Vermonica, and soon received a large set of files, which he has uploaded here.
Much of the material documented our efforts to set up that December 2017 City Hall meeting after Vermonica was removed, and communication with reporters about what had happened to the artwork.
But there were also smoking gun emails from BSL staff documenting the actual removal of Vermonica from the parking lot, before Sheila Klein knew her piece was threatened, before the press started asking questions.
These emails show that BSL intended to remove Vermonica from its home of 24 years to create a new installation called “Virmonica” in front of their offices a block to the east.
If you read just two emails in the large cache, read these two:
1) City of Los Angeles Mail – Re_ Video of Street Lighting Museum for PW Newsletter.pdf (PDF link)
Why this email is revealing: On March 6, 2017—more than eight months before Vermonica’s removal—Ed Ebrahimian, then Director of the Bureau of Street Lighting, directs a city employee coordinating a video shoot about BSL’s collection of historic streetlights, to “dont even bring up vermonica…”
This direction is peculiar, because BSL has always been proud of Vermonica and to this day still includes photos of the work on its website. The email suggests that Ed Ebrahimian has some reason for wishing to keep Vermonica out of the public eye in early 2017.
2) From Jeff Ziliotto on Nov 17, 2017 Subject Fwd- VIRMONICA PROJECT O.T (PDF link)
Why this email is revealing: After Vermonica was dismantled and its elements reinstalled in front of the BSL office, Jeff Ziliotto—who worked closely with artist Sheila Klein to install the artwork in 1993—forwards emails that explicitly describe the newly installed “Virmonica” and shares photos of how it looks from various directions. The names Vermonica and “Virmonica” are used, showing clearly BSL’s familiarity with Klein’s work.
The story that BSL told about being asked by the property owner to move the streetlights out of the Staples parking lot might actually be true—there are missing emails and attachments in the material provided by the city which might prove or disprove this. But it is obvious that the BSL was not honest with Sheila Klein or with the press about what happened after Vermonica was taken apart.
The creation of “Virmonica” represents an act of bad faith, and a misuse of civic resources to destroy and abscond with a beloved piece of public art.
We are grateful to Adrian Riskin of MichaelKohlhaas.org for the information about how Los Angeles really functions that he exposes on his blog, and recommend anyone with an interest in homelessness policy, neighborhood councils, business improvement districts, policing, charter schools, murals and land use follow his work. Our city is a mess, and the California Public Records Act, in the hands of dedicated citizen-activists like Adrian, has the power to illuminate dark places and bring much needed reform.
What happened to Vermonica was bad enough when it was just the city being inept. Now that we know the truth, we join Sheila Klein in demanding swift action to right this wrong. City of Los Angeles: Restore Vermonica Now!
See where Vermonica used to be, and the xVermonica installation at the BSL field office, on September 7 on our debut Saving Los Angeles Landmarks tour.
Update June 10, 2019: Photos of xVermonica aka “Virmonica” with BSL signage designating the location as “Zilioto Ln” provided courtesy of Vermonica fan Mike Callahan. It’s infuriating that the city would install this self-promotional signage, while refusing to post the notice requested by artist Sheila Klein explaining that this is not her famous work Vermonica.
Update June 12, 2019: As of today, the Ziliotto Ln sign has been removed.
Update July 13, 2019: On NBC News, Bureau of Street Lighting admits the lights in front of their offices need to be moved to be Vermonica once more.