It was a perfect early spring morning to explore Descanso Gardens. The botanical garden’s tulips, lilacs and cherry blossoms were in spectacular bloom. Like many of that day’s visitors, Bridget Campos brought equipment with her. But rather than a tripod and camera or an easel and paints, her tools of the trade included an iPad, tape measure, binoculars and gloves.
While Campos could appreciate the park’s natural beauty like the other guests, her eyes were peeled for man-made rather than botanical gems. Her role as the Field Registrar in the civic art inventory is to visit more than 900 sites across LA County over a two year span to catalog previously unregistered civic artworks. The sites range from 10,000 square foot administrative offices to the seat of County government, the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, whose square footage is greater than that of ten football fields. What some might view as a daunting challenge, she welcomes as a thrilling opportunity. “I never know what I’m going to find,” she says, “so it’s always exciting.”
Campos had allotted half her day for the site, a public-private partnership between the County Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Descanso Gardens Guild, which manages the 160 acres in La Cañada Flintridge. Facilitating the visit was Rachel Young, Director of Horticulture and Garden Operations.
Young’s guided tour offered access to locations that most of the verdant attraction’s 350,000 annual visitors would never see. In a nonpublic building near the Japanese Garden, Campos climbed a narrow set of wooden stairs to an attic-level storage area. At the nearly 80 year old Boddy House — closed to visitors because it was a Monday — she enjoyed an exclusive look through the mansion’s well-appointed public rooms and got to examine off-limits nooks and crannies, which is a standard part of her job. Gaining access to the storage closets and basements, in addition to areas intended for the public, is par for the course in what is the only job like it in the County.
Zeroing in on potentially significant, and possibly overlooked, works of civic art requires know how, a spirited tenacity and patience. Part art scavenger hunter, part ambassador for the Arts Commission, Campos must navigate bureaucratic layers as well as physical geography. Though the County Arts Commission has been around since 1947 — known initially as the Los Angeles County Music Commission — in many cases Campos’s visit to a County facility is its first direct contact with the County agency.
“Most of the time, people are surprised to hear that the County has an Arts Commission,” Campos says, adding that she enjoys being an emissary who shines a light on the agency’s mandate to manage and care for the County’s civic art assets. “A lot of people are excited when they learn about the project,” she says, recalling an especially delighted and helpful guide, Deputy Keith Holly, when she visited the Sheriff’s Industry Station in the City of Industry.
“I often hear the question, ‘How can we get artwork?’,” Campos says. “The civic art pieces we have in our inventory and some I’ve discovered — specifically murals in parks — are deeply loved and appreciated by the staff and, most importantly, by the community.”
At Descanso Gardens, Young was attuned to Campos’s mission, and aimed her electric cart “off road” to a circular arrangement of 33 stones in a forest clearing at the edge of the park: an artist’s “sun spiral.” Walking around the miniature Stonehenge, Campos got out her ruler to measure the rectangular stones, and took pictures from multiple angles on her ever-present iPad, which she refers to as “my lifeline.”
Walking through a small building of employee offices, in a narrow hallway between the kitchen and bathrooms, Campos stopped in her tracks. Hanging on the wall were a series of framed illustrations of the gardens — detailed works on vellum, among them a “Rose Garden Master Plan.” The find clearly thrilled Campos as she snapped and typed away on her tablet. It perhaps made up for the disappointing moment earlier in the morning when an intriguing set of framed photographs proved so near and yet so far. Glimpsed through an open doorway, they hung in a conference room where a high level, not-to-be-interrupted meeting was taking place.
But on her solo walk through the gardens after the official tour, Campos returned to that room. The meeting was over, the door locked, and she enlisted the help of the friendly maintenance crew to get inside. It turns out that the four signed and numbered photographs she recorded in that conference room aren’t likely to be accessioned into the County’s civic art collection, but the incident is a perfect example of the stick-to-itiveness, ingenuity, and gentle persuasiveness that make Campos particularly well suited to the enormous task at hand.
Beyond her skill and efficiency, she possesses the curiosity to detect compelling possibilities in run-of-the-mill work spaces, the kind of “uninteresting” places that aren’t usually associated with art. This tireless spirit of discovery and the physical stamina to conduct three to five site visits a day, five days a week, are integral components of the job.
In a previous position as assistant registrar at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, part of the Autry National Center, Campos worked on a two-and-a-half-year project involving native basketry. Though it wasn’t field work per se, it was a large project that required resilience, just as the inventory does — Campos has walked almost 500 miles on her site visits so far — as well as a passion for connecting the dots to sometimes forgotten or overlooked pieces from Los Angeles’s past.
“That’s why it’s my calling to do this,” native Angeleno Campos says of her role in the civic art inventory. “I was very excited that they chose me.”
By Sheri Linden