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SLO makes public box art program permanent 

The beloved San Luis Obispo public art program that pays artists to turn boring gray and green utility boxes into vibrant murals will become permanent and expanded.

The SLO City Council unanimously approved the project on July 19, opening a new chapter in a program that has already triggered a few quick bouts between artists, community members, and decision makers.

The program began as a pilot project in 2010 and included 33 box art murals throughout the downtown core. It was designed to be both public art enhancement and graffiti abatement and has become a model for cities across the country.

Earlier this year, a decision to make the program permanent and to repaint or “refresh” the boxes upset several of the featured artists, who said that their work didn’t need refreshment. Instead, they suggested that the city expand the program outside of downtown and onto unpainted utility boxes throughout the city.

The city shifted its plans in February and is now giving the public an opportunity to vote online for which boxes to prioritize. Those boxes will be repainted every 10 years, funding permitting.

Some downtown boxes do need repairing, and the original artist will have the first opportunity to do any touch-ups.

Downtown boxes will eventually be refreshed, and will then be repainted with new art every three to five years, intended to help keep things new around downtown, said Recreation and Public Art Manager Melissa Mudgett.

“If we know one thing about downtown, change is a constant,” she said.

In addition to the “public engagement” portion to determine which boxes to paint, an art jury will review the proposed designs and locations; then an advisory body, which includes neighbors, will review the recommended designs—if the proposed art is in a historic district, it will go through both the city’s Architectural Review Committee and the Cultural Heritage Committee—and the City Council will have the final sign-off on designs and locations.

While the plan to expand the program rather than immediately replace existing art was a relief for many, at least one person cautioned the council to not let the new process suffocate the artistic spirit.

“I love the box art program and the expansion of the program,” said Andy Pease, a local architect that’s running for the City Council. “I’m concerned about the potential input from the public on the artist’s subject. I hope that we can value the integrity of art so that we neither dilute it nor sway it in a way that takes away from the artist to express themselves with some freedom.”

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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