Something about Los Angeles inspires unforgettable detective stories, whether they’re novelist Walter Mosley’s tales of Watts private eye Easy Rawlins, the big screen noir of Chinatown or TV’s romantic comedy Moonlighting. Now one of Southern California’s greatest sleuthing projects is unfolding in real life, and it has already turned up hundreds of treasures, many of them hidden in plain sight.
The gumshoe in this case is an intrepid art cataloger named Bridget Campos, and the territory she’s surveying encompasses more than 900 sites across the 4,000 square miles of LA County.
Campos is the field registrar for the Civic Art Baseline Inventory, as this enormous undertaking by the LA County Arts Commission is called. The mission: delve through 150 years’ worth of artwork housed in County departments (and, on especially exciting days, discover unknown gems), document the items and help to ensure that the pieces appropriate for accession are maintained for future generations.
As mandated by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2004, the Arts Commission must conduct a survey every five years, producing an up-to-date, publicly accessible report on County-owned art. Even with limited resources, the first edition of the survey in 2009 unearthed 68 works that met the accession criteria for the County’s permanent civic art collection.
But this time around, a more focused and labor-intensive effort has already exceeded those results by a long shot, and the Commission isn’t even halfway through the two year process. Leading the charge are a collections manager, registrar, conservator and field registrar, and they’re enlisting the help of an artwork maintenance task force that works with all 37 County departments.
After the field registrar visits sites (usually upwards of ten a week, ranging from Descanso Gardens to the Medical Examiner-Coroner’s gift shop), the home base team of the collections manager (who oversees the process) and registrar (who manages the day-to-day operations), determines which artworks satisfy the accession criteria. From there, research into the origin of the works becomes crucial, and will play a significant role in the project’s later phases.
As of January 31, 2016, the team has catalogued an astounding 939 pieces, 776 of which are likely to be found eligible for inclusion in the County civic art collection. Some pieces have been on display since their original unveiling; others have fallen into disuse, tucked away in corners and forgotten.
Collectively, and in often striking ways, the artworks shed light on the lives of Angelenos through the decades. Seeming incongruities can be provocative and exhilarating: A chapel’s midcentury stained glass, jewel-bright with hope, illuminates a juvenile detention center. The resonance can be politically charged and self-evident, as in a Latina artists collective’s vibrant mural at the Chicana Service Action Center. Or it can be quirky, personal and utterly unexpected, as in the miniature painting, placed so high on a wall as to be nearly out of sight, that celebrates an Oscar-winning composer’s affection for the public library.
While a painting may be easy enough to identify, other hidden treasures require an extra layer of sleuthing. Field Registrar Campos recalled an exciting recent find at another branch of the library – one that took even the librarians by surprise. What appeared at a casual glance to be an architectural feature on the outside wall of the building turned out to be a sculpture. No library staff members, including a 20-year employee, had any idea that the building was adorned with a signed and dated work of art. “It looks like a forest of birch trees and has this beautiful blue glaze on it,” Campos says. Making the find especially exciting was the fact that, until that moment, the Arts Commission had no knowledge of the sculpture’s existence.
“To find missing links within the collection is always really nice,” says Campos, a Southern California native who appreciates the opportunity to explore LA history from many perspectives. Doing so requires not just expertise but stamina. So far she has walked more than 419 miles in pursuit of County artworks, on one occasion logging a remarkable 16 mile (or 32,000 step) day at the Hall of Records in Downtown LA.
But whether she’s checking the condition of open air murals, locating long lost paintings, or exploring the donated archives of a Hollywood star, she’s delighted to be tackling a project of nearly unparalleled scope. “Not a lot of people have had the chance to do something like this,” she says. “Every day is an exciting hunt for art and I’m honored to be a part of it.”
As the survey proceeds, no one can predict what pieces of the historical puzzle the art detective will uncover. But it’s certain that by the time she’s logged her final mile and unraveled her last mystery, we’ll have a richer sense of LA County and the artists it has inspired.
By Sheri Linden