They say adversity breeds creativity, and from the hardship of COVID restrictions artists have discovered an exciting new canvas — street side K-Rails.
Up and down Main Street, the concrete barriers installed for al-fresco dining have been adorned with vibrant artwork in the latest installment of Santa Monica’s “Art of Recovery” initiative, which employs artists in service of the City’s recovery efforts.
The goal of the K-Rail project is two-fold: to create a unique opportunity for artists to showcase their work and to help attract visitors to local businesses. So far it’s working.
“There’s already restaurants and businesses wanting more murals in the corridor so it’s very exciting,” said Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut. “I think people just love it and I think it deepens an experience at a time when we’re all desperately wanting richer experiences.”
The project is a collaboration between Cultural Affairs, the Main Street Business Improvement Association, Ocean Park Association and Beautify art initiative. It is an unusual program uniting the interests of resident, business and art organizations.
“Everyone has the same goal to take these naked white K-Rails that scream neglected and turn them into something beautiful and compelling,” said Marc Morgenstern, president of Ocean Park Association. “We all share the common goal of taking the al fresco dining scene and ramping it up to create another reason for people to come out to the street, and to tell everybody who’s driving by or walking by loudly and clearly ‘we are open for business’.”
The project has created a splashy and dynamic horizontal art gallery that features work from nine different artists. The art non-profit Beautify helped Cultural Affairs solicit designs and assemble a diverse group of artists to showcase their styles on the K-Rails.
Many of these artists are local to Santa Monica, like Gus Harper who grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from Samohi. Harper decorated the K-Rails outside of Stella Barra restaurant with geological landscapes of natural imagery using bold crimson and royal blue to depict roses and diamonds.
Other artists came from out of town like Nuria Ortiz, who hails from Long Beach and goes by the name Ms. Yellow. Her bright floral design imbued the K-Rails outside of Lula Mexican restaurant with a distinctly Latin feel.
“I can’t tell you how universally appealing this seems to be for everybody from people walking by, to people driving by, to the artists themselves,” said Morgenstern. “Especially at a time when COVID has forced outdoor dining to take a pause, it turns out that art is that much more important in keeping people going and sustained and connected to the community.”
The Art of Recovery program was inspired by the WPA-era’s Federal Art Project and aims to create employment opportunities for artists as part of the City’s broader recovery agenda.
“The WPA had a major initiative to put artists to work in response to the Great Depression. Significant plays were written, public artworks and murals created; it was a very impactful program for the country,” said Daut. “When the pandemic started we saw that there was a great opportunity in terms of the arts playing a role in the City’s recovery efforts.”
While Cultural Affairs’ budget was slashed during the City’s financial restructuring in June, this program is made possible with funds from the City Cultural Arts Trust Fund, which contains funds that private developers contribute to as required by the City’s Private Percent for Art Ordinance.
The program is a compelling example of how artwork and business operations can be mutually beneficial.
By working outside of stores, artists received exposure that is impossible to achieve when working from a studio. Several artists gained project commissions from people they met during the K-Rail project and businesses are already asking for more murals on Main Street.
“I’m hearing from a number of these projects that businesses are really seeing the value artists can bring to their endeavors,” said Daut. “I’m hopeful that this creates an environment where these relationships can strengthen and grow over time way beyond the pandemic.”