A Quick Tour Of Downtown Public Art

Summer is touring season, and the city's public art will attract its share of visitors. This week, one such group was made of educators attending the 7th Annual Ethical Literacy Conference at Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. During previous conferences, a field trip was used to focus on what the region offers as a cultural identifier, such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest surviving synagogue in the U.S; and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

This year, they wanted to see Los Angeles through its murals.

During their three-day conference, they wanted to see public art that would support their directive to "bring meaning to schools and learning experiences through a focus on integrity and ethics," wrote Paula Mirk, Director of Education for The Ethical Literacy Learning Community. She contacted KCET's Writing on the Wall with a question: "Of all the mural locations I see at your web site, is there one 'stand out' area/collection you would recommend for this purpose?"

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

Where do we begin? The Great Wall of Los Angeles can fulfill that all by itself. So could a trip into Estrada Courts, or Venice Beach. The challenge was that they only had two hours, maybe three, and didn't know the city. And what is surely a typical description of Los Angeles by travel agents, they were told the area near the former Ambassador Hotel, where they are staying, is considered Downtown.

Fortunately, Cortines School wasn't a bad place to start a tour that samples the city's public art. It could end at a building with an impressive portfolio that can help them answer the assigned questions of, "How might this mural empower or limit the citizens of this community?" and "Is the artist of this piece speaking to the citizens of this community or speaking for them?" or "What type of meaning is constructed for you with this mural?"

So after sending an itinerary with notes, it was onward with their tour, which took place on Thursday, June 21. Look for photos credited to @Ethicalliteracy for what they saw through their eyes.


''Dance Door'' by Robert GrahamWalking out of Cortines School, head toward downtown's skyscrapers on Grand Avenue. At Temple and Grand, you will be at the back of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which itself can be an afternoon of exploring Catholic sacred art, highlighted by the Great Bronze Doors and the Statue of Our Lady of the Angels by designer and sculptor Robert Graham. Moving on:

Crossing Temple, on your right and across the street, is the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, part of the campus of the Music Center, which is home to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (and a one of the former sites for the Oscar Ceremonies). At the foot of the plaza is another piece by Robert Graham: his "Dance Door" from 1978.

You will find yourself at the entrance to a renovated Grand Park, and in the distance is City Hall. Designed by John Parkinson, it's a symbol of government, a tower for a city of noir, and a film location. That makes the 1928 building a government facility, an installation, and performance artist.


Walt Disney Hall I Photo @EthicalLiteracyWe must point out some civic public art that you could find in Omaha, proving we are in touch with our inner small town. There is "Abraham Lincoln," a bust by Robert Merrell Gage at Hill and First streets. Look across the street and you will see the Frank Gehry designed Disney Hall. That visit is for another day, as you are on a mission for murals.

Moving south on Grand Avenue, you will come to the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Arata Isozaki. The geometric composition of the building "is based on the golden section as the Western method of planning shapes and subdivided the spaces, and on the oriental theory of ying and yang, positive-negative" wrote Josep M. Montaner. Peek down the steps and you will see the s-curve near the entrance. It's said that the shape was inspired by Marilyn Monroe.

You must scurry, so keep walking down Grand Avenue, past the small Third street intersection until you are at California Plaza. Go down the steps, into the Watercourt, and walk on through until you see the bright orange ticket booth for Angels Flight.

Angels Flight I Photo: Ed Fuentes


On Angels Flight I Photo: @EthicalLiteracyKCET colleague Nathan Masters just re-introduced this funicular as "a downtown Los Angeles landmark. Its orange, beaux-arts archways and simple, Edwardian technology stand in contrast to the modern skyscrapers of the financial district." Take a ride. It's fifty cents to Hill Street.


Manhole cover as public art, by Kim Abeles

Cross Hill Street and on the sidewalk you will see manhole covers that double as public art, as designed by Kim Abeles. In the center, the text is a reminder "to those above of the vastness of the world beneath their feet." Abeles is also the artist behind the nearby bench, titled "Hill Street Pedestrian Corridor" that has small wayfinders to seven architectural landmarks.


Inside the Bradbury I Photo: @EthicalLiteracyA few steps away you will find Grand Central Market. Walk through the neon forest to Broadway. Exit the market and turn left. You will see the Million Dollar Theater, built in 1918, and one of twelve historical movie palaces on this strip. Take a moment to admire the façade work by sculptor Joseph Mora. Across street is The Bradbury Building, George Wyman's 1893 masterpiece. Peek inside lobby if you can. Sometimes it's open.

Nino y Caballo I Photo by @EthicalLiteracyBack at the corner, look north and you will see your destination: the former Victor Clothing Company at 242 South Broadway. With help from the illustrious websites PublicArtLA, by USC Librarian Ruth Wallach, and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, the meaning of these murals can be unraveled.

Walk east on Third, and you will see "The Pope of Broadway" dance over a parking lot. It's muralist Eloy Torrez' 1985 tribute to Anthony Quinn. "With outstretched arms, slightly bent knees and head tilted to one side, Quinn has the traditional posture of Jesus on the cross," wrote Michael Several, as cited on PublicArtLA. "Torrez felt the small enclosed parking lot next to the wall creates a secluded, church-like setting to view the mural. The religious content is reinforced by crosses under Quinn's arms." Quinn, as a performer, becomes a patron saint of Latinos crossing over into popular culture.

Nino y Caballo and Pope of Broadway I Photo courtesy of MCLANext to it is Frank Romero's "Nino y Caballo" from 1984. Cracked and in need of restoration, the mural shows a small Mexican boy riding a horse. "Romero has often incorporated equestrian imagery in his work as a symbol of strength and mystery. In this mural he intensified it's meaning with rich colors by enlarging the size and scale of the powerful figures," wrote Several.

Walk to the other side of the same building and you will find East Los Streetscapers' 1985 "El Nuevo Fuego" on the north wall, a response to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Again, from PublicArtLA, Several wrote, the "piece links the 52 years separating the 1932 and the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, with an Aztec tradition in which all lights were extinguished every 52 years followed by igniting a new torch and restoring fire to the nation." While the murals commissioned for the Olympics were completed months before the games, this piece, a concept presented but not accepted by the Olympic Committee, was funded and created after the games; thus, becoming an document of the competition.

Next to it is Kent Twitchell's "Bride and Groom," a bold experiment of aesthetic and production process by the artist, and reflects the retail heritage of that section of Broadway. "After completing the faces of the bride and groom, Twitchell was not motivated to paint the clothes and the five stories of blue background. The mural was completed when Twitchell invited about 35 friends to paint the lower part," wrote Several.

That would take up allotted time you have, but know that you followed the footsteps of those who once lived on Grand Avenue, also known as Bunker Hill, who walked to Broadway daily. That makes you honorary Angelenos. Come back soon. There is so much more to see on this mini-tour, as well as the rest of the city.

View A Quick Tour of Downtown Public Art in a larger map

Top: North wall of former Victor Clothing Company. Photo: Ingrid Truemper

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
RSS icon


Mural Ordinance Scheduled for City Council? Not Yet


The Gaylord Apartments: Luxury, Socialism, and L.A.'s First Failed Co-op