Last week, while visiting the San Diego Model Railroad Museum with my two young boys, I noticed a tiny billboard, about two inches tall and three inches wide, that pictured an image of virgin Mary behind a mother holding a baby. The billboard read “Defend Life,” and listed the religious organization Knights of Columbus’ website.

The pro-life propaganda seemed out of place, so posted a photo on my Facebook page. Within seconds, people were leaving angry comments. A handful of folks immediately contacted the museum, the city and even the attorney general, demanding the billboard’s removal.

Within hours, Anthony Ridenhour, the museum’s executive director, took down the billboard and apologized.

“I’m angry and a bit disappointed by it,” he told me. “The museum does not endorse any political or sociopolitical views. We find that our visitors come from many different backgrounds and walks of life, and we don’t have any right to push one agenda or another.”

He said the models are built by volunteers and change frequently, so he didn’t know how long the billboard had been on view, but that there would be a full investigation. He said the museum has never had anyone complain about the content of the train displays before, and that it has a policy not to include any political statements.

“We want to be known as a safe space for people to come and learn,” he said. “We’re just not that kind of museum.”

Despite Ridenhour’s swift response, KPBS and the Union-Tribune caught wind of the ordeal, fueling the controversy.

People are still commenting on my Facebook page, and a few interesting conversations have transpired.

Many people incorrectly believed that since the Railroad Museum inhabits city property and enjoys subsidized rent like many of the cultural organizations in Balboa Park, the political billboard was a violation of its lease. That’s not the case, said city spokesperson Tim Graham.

“Since the facility is leased, they would be within their right to keep the sign if they so desired, as it’s considered protected speech,” Graham wrote in an email.

Another false assumption is that the museum’s nonprofit status would prevent it from engaging in religious or political speech. John Highkin, co-director of arts nonprofit Fern Street Circus, said that’s not true.

“There is nothing illegal or inappropriate in a 501(c)(3) having a sign like this in its display,” he wrote on Facebook. “Not-for-profits may comment on or support (or oppose) issues including ballot initiatives. They may not take a position on a candidate for public office. I don’t agree with this little billboard but there is nothing legally amiss in its presence.”

A few folks said the removal of the sign was an act of censorship that made them uncomfortable. They argued the volunteers who build the scenes should have the creative license to include political opinions of the time.

Art critic Robert Pincus disagreed with that line of reasoning.

“Ultimately, it really doesn’t seem like censorship to ask those who construct these landscapes to be apolitical within these miniatures scenes,” he wrote. “They are meant to be unreal places that mimic real ones. But interjecting politics into them would undermine the spell they create.”

Local artist and urbanist Jim Bliesner’s comment echoed others’. He thought Balboa Park’s estimated $300 million in needed repairs and other issues involving the park deserve the kind of attention the tiny sign has gotten.

“Surely there are bigger issues to uncover in Balboa Park,” Bliesner wrote. “Like how many tons of new cement has been laid in the last year or how much stipend the zoo receives at taxpayers’ expense – [there’s a] long list.” 

You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news. Sign up here to get the weekly report delivered to your inbox. 

Boughs of Spray Paint Cans

Isaac Coronado, who uses the name Optimus Volts when he’s making art, is one of a handful of artists whose Christmas tree sculptures are currently showing at the Manchester Grand Hyatt downtown.

Coronado makes sculptures from deconstructed spray paint cans. He cuts the aluminum cans into pieces, and pieces them into sharp, jagged-edged and aggressive imagery like evil-looking skulls. He’s got a terrifying “Game of Thrones”-inspired throne on view at Salud! in Barrio Logan, for example, and other jagged animal head sculptures going up at the soon-to-open Bar Logan across the street.

Photos courtesy of Manchester Grand Hyatt
Photos courtesy of Manchester Grand Hyatt

The artist said he toned things down a bit for his tree piece, using dozens of ornaments alongside about 65 reused spray cans. But he said if people look closely, they will see his signature style.

“You’ll see everything from the spray cans in the tree,” he said. “The straws, the tips – if you look up close you can find them and you can see how much texture and objects are in there.”

The exhibition, the result of a partnership between Manchester Grand Hyatt and art dealer Alexander Salazar, is a fundraiser for the All About the Kids Foundation. Trees by Walter Redondo, Chris Smith, Qais Al Sindy and Isaac Coronado are on display in the hotel lobby through the end of the year. A public opening for the show is happening from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16.

What Nonprofit Arts Boards Do, Painting the Border Fence Away and Other Arts and Culture News

• The U-T’s James Hebert explains the “all but invisible” role that nonprofit boards play in helping run and sustain local arts groups.

• KPBS talked to the co-authors of a new book profiling 28 women who’ve made a big impact on our region. KPBS also talked to the arts nonprofit So Say We All about a new all-female anthology it published.

• Holiday happenings abound. (U-T)

• Access Hip Hop in Pacific Beach is officially closed. It’s the end of an era for hip-hop heads in San Diego.

• The U-T’s Roger Showley has the scoop on the UCSD’s plan to open a permanent facility downtown. He says the new building will include a space where “campus artists will display art works and perform music, dance and drama pieces.”

• The U-T talked to photographer J. Raymond Mireles about his portraits of his neighbors in Logan Heights. I wrote about Mireles and his portrait project in 2015, and the photographer also makes an appearance in my soon-to-be-released episode of Culturecast. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss it.

• The city of Coronado unveiled a new piece of public art. (The Coronado Times)

• I dig the work Hidden San Diego does rounding up weird, interesting and unknown things to do or experience across our region. The venture is celebrating its sixth anniversary on Friday.

• The Port of San Diego’s Parade of Lights will color the San Diego Bay this weekend. For the first time ever, the parade of boats covered in holiday lights will proceed all the way to the pier at Cesar Chavez Park in Barrio Logan.

• A house sculpture by Aaron Stephan made entirely of books is showing at the new Quint Gallery location through the end of the year. Here’s a picture of San Diego artist Roman de Salvo sitting in the book house with his cute dog.

• Artist and former UCSD art professor Kim MacConnel has a new book.

• CityBeat put together a list of holiday tunes made by San Diego musicians.

• San Diego Story’s Martin Jones Westlin calls Lux Radio Theater’s “Miracle on 34th Street” a “sweet and terribly energetic holiday entry.”

• The San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association is raising money so it can make wooden toys for San Diego kids in need.

• A local arts group is hosting a fundraiser for the surviving artists effected by the warehouse fire in Oakland.

• A play based on some of the real-life experiences of San Diegans whose lives have been impacted by meth addiction is debuting this week.

• Coyote Gulch, the experimental arts and performance space in Oak Park I told you about, is no more, but the artists who ran the space have a lot going on this month.

Learn more about Krampus, Christmas’ darker side, at a lecture and slideshow presentation happening at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park.

A new 20-foot mural just went up in Little Italy. It’s called “Mine-A-Lisa” and it was made by Washington Elementary STEAM Magnet School students, who worked with artist Jayne Barnett. San Diego Downtown News wrote about the mural back in September. The piece replaces a mural that celebrated Little Italy’s tuna-fishing history. That mural started to fall apart and became a safety hazard, so it was taken down by the Little Italy Association years ago.

• CityBeat dug into the anti-immigrant graffiti that recently appeared on two signs at the New Americans Museum in Liberty Station. I wrote a bit about the controversy last week.

•  Three of the 15 community volunteer seats on the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture are vacant. Here’s where you can apply to become an arts commissioner.

• San Diego Home & Garden dropped by A Ship In The Woods in Escondido.

• Get to know more about Cabrillo National Monument’s arts program and meet one of its artists in residence.

• Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez is in town, and she’s continuing her project painting the border fence blue so it matches the skyline and, from certain vantage points, disappears.

• Barrio Logan’s Low Gallery has closed.

Food, Beer and Booze News

• Hello there,

• Here’s a supper club that just popped up on my radar.

• Harrah’s Resort Southern California is now home to SR76, a new 5,000-square-foot brewery. (San Diego Food Finds)

So, I guess San Diego is not the country’s craft beer capital, at least according to Travelocity.

San Diego Magazine checks out Tijuana’s first speakeasy.

• Wheat & Water is now open on La Jolla Boulevard in Bird Rock. (Eater San Diego)

This spot is changing the wine-tasting game by offering patrons the chance to drink wine right out of the barrel. (San Diego Magazine)

• San Diego’s craft distillery scene just grew again. (Eater San Diego)

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the estimated repairs needed in Balboa Park. It is $300 million.

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She also managed VOSD’s podcasts and covered...

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