Art code falls short, artist says
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, The stained-glass portions of Matthew Moutafis’ sculptures in front of The Home Depot have been vandalized. Moutafis said he told the town, but got no response. He has decided to make the repairs to the sculpture himself.

The art that adorns much of Oro Valley makes Matthew Moutafis proud, but he wonders if town leaders share his pride.

When he looks closely at the town’s public art displays he finds several works that show the signs of vandalism, wear and weather. That makes him wonder if the town should take a more active role in caring for the aging works.  

“Art is the face that people see,” Moutafis said.

He wants the town to take a close look at the public art ordinance enacted in 1999 that requires builders to set aside a portion of their construction budgets for art displays.

In his view, gaps in the rule have begun to show.

The town council recently took steps to address Moutafis’ central question about public art maintenance.

The council on June 4 made an addition to the public art ordinance stating, in part, that maintenance of public art would be the responsibility of the property owner.

The updated provision states, “the artwork shall be maintained in such a manner as to preserve its appearance as approved by the town council.”

The addition, though, differs from an earlier recommendation by the planning and zoning commission that the “artwork shall be maintained in such a manner as to preserve its intended appearance.”

A slight alteration, perhaps, but to Moutafis a substantial one.  

His concerns stem in part from his vocation — Moutafis is an artist. More than that, he created much of the public art on display throughout Oro Valley.

In fact, the town seal — a stylized scene of Pusch Ridge beneath the head of a big horn sheep — was Moutafis’ creation.

He said the wording of the change doesn’t account for what an artist may have intended a piece to look like decades down the road. Some works, Moutafis said, don’t take on their intended appearance for years after the town council approves them.

He wants the town’s public art review committee to be more deliberate, asking artists fundamental questions about long-term maintenance and the structural integrity of their pieces.

The way things are now, Moutafis said, the committee seems more concerned with aesthetics.

“I have never been asked about the structural support needed for what I’m doing,” Moutafis said. “Never.”

The evidence for a much-needed overhaul, according to Moutafis, stands all over town.

On Monday, as he walked toward a sculpture of three 10-foot-tall steel-and-glass geckos in front of The Home Depot at Oracle Road and First Avenue, Moutafis pointed out the damage.

“This is what happens,” he said of the sculpture he made nearly 10 years ago.

Several of the glass pieces have been pried out and others are shattered, their sharp edges exposed and within easy reach.

Moutafis said that he has told town leaders about the damage, which according to the code would be the responsibility of the property owner to repair. He has yet to hear back.

He’s resolved to repair the broken glass himself, with his own money.

Another work, a fountain at the corner of La Cañada Drive and Lambert Lane, stands partially hidden from view behind a nearly 7-foot-tall steel box that controls traffic signals.

“Having something beautiful on the corner and then having something like that,” Moutafis said, “just doesn’t make sense.”

Other cities with similar public art requirements have found ways to make certain sculptures and other outdoor works retain their original appearances.

Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix with a population of 250,000, has set a maintenance schedule for its public art.

“It’s part of the proposal plan from the artist,” said Eric Faulhaber, the city’s visual arts coordinator.

Chandler’s seven-member arts commission evaluates and approves public art displays. Commissioners question artists about a work’s structural integrity, anticipated wear and tear and how to care for it.

The mayor appoints commission members and most have backgrounds in the arts, Faulhaber said.

Chandler bears the maintenance costs because, unlike Oro Valley, all of its public artworks remain city-owned. The city’s public art provision, however, applies only to municipal buildings and parks.

Tempe, which like Oro Valley has a provision for public art at commercial developments, requires property owners to care for their artworks.

In Oro Valley, the code is less comprehensive and doesn’t yet clearly spell out, for example, who owns the art once a property gets sold.

A few steps from Moutafis’ geckos, inside a vacant storefront, is an example of the problem posed for public art by a change in property ownership.

What once was an Albertson’s grocery store has been cleaved in two, with half of the remaining space vacant, the other part of new sporting goods store.

When the Albertson’s was open, two public art displays decorated its interior walls — a mural above the entrance and a larger reproduction of the painting on the north wall.

The displays are gone. A peek through the glass doors of the vacant space reveals bare walls with no remnants of the works, which were commissioned in 2002.

Sarah More, the town planning and zoning director, said the code likely already covers the issue of ownership. The new owner takes over maintaining the landscape, for example.

As for the murals that once decorated Albertson’s, town officials do not know what happened to them.

The sporting goods store did, however, buy two steel-framed sport scenes to hang outside. Moutafis made the pieces.

Still, the artist wants the town to clarify the public art review committee’s role and fill gaps in the code so that future works retain their integrity.

“For 10 years this committee has been treated like it’s irrelevant,” Mutafis said. “It’s as valuable to the community as planning and zoning or economic development.”

Town officials seem to agree with him and have begun a comprehensive overhaul of the public art ordinance and review committee.

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