Commissions Recommend Jean-Michel Basquiat Outdoor Gym

Beverly Hills parks already have courts for basketball. But at some point next year, one of the parks may have a fitness court with a Basquiat wall.

The Arts and Culture and Recreation and Parks Commissions voted on Aug. 10 and Aug. 24, respectively, to recommend that the city look into bringing a full service outdoor gym decorated with one of the fiery, frenetic, provocative paintings of the late neo-Expressionist megastar Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Arts and Culture Commission Council Liaisons John Mirisch and Lili Bosse were supposed to vote on Aug. 25 on whether to move forward with a feasibility study, but the meeting was postponed until an unknown date. If they sign off, city staff will work with the sponsoring National Fitness Campaign (NFC) to determine possible locations and ways to raise the $220,000 it will cost to install and purchase the fitness center and lease the Basquiat art for five years.  

After all the necessary studies and signatures, an NFC crew will be able to install the gym and the art in just four days. At that point, Beverly Hills will become the first city on the West Coast to host a Basquiat court, and just one of 10 cities across the country invited by the NFC to consider one.  

“I really like the idea that this would be the first of its type, like how we brought Sing for Hope to the West Coast,” Arts and Culture Commission Chair Deborah Frank said. “Since we are a visionary city, this to me would be phenomenal to be out front and different than any other city in California.”

The project is organized, licensed, and installed by the National Fitness Campaign; a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting accessible fitness. Since 2012, the NFC has built over 500 identical outdoor fitness courts throughout the country, with the purported goal of eventually placing one within a 10-minute bike ride of every American.

In recent years, the NFC expanded its mission to “build an outdoor art gallery across the country,” as NFC Public Art Campaign Director Gloria Cox told the Arts and Culture Commission. A centerpiece of that mission is its Signature Series, which each year works with a different artist or their estate to license their art and affix it to gyms in 10 select cities each year. In 2021, that signature artist is pop graffiti star Keith Haring, and his famous acrobatic chalk outlines are currently watching other bodies contort at eight locations across the country.

This year, NFC chose Haring’s friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, the iconoclastic, countercultural New York artist who died in 1988 at just 27 years old. Basquiat’s work uses drawing, poetry, and painting to explore race, class, colonialism, sex, gender, poverty, and wealth (thorny, adult themes that Recreation and Parks Commissioner Alissa Roston wondered would be appropriate for children.)

Basquiat sold his first painting to Debbie Harry for $200 in 1981, but his paintings have sold for as much as $110 million in recent years. 

But the NFC is offering Beverly Hills a five-year lease to that art at a relative discount: for $220,000, the city will get access to the court in perpetuity, installation of all art and fitness equipment, and support with sponsorship and fundraising. The 38′ x 38′ concrete slab on which the equipment will be placed is not included, but Cox said sometimes concrete companies donate the slab in-kind. The city would also be responsible for equipment maintenance, but Cox said that light maintenance typically adds up to around $500 a year. 

After five years, the graffiti-proof film will be rolled up and returned to the Basquiat estate. At that point, the city will have a few options: it could lease another featured artist for five years for around $25,000 for five years, work with the NFC and the Basquiat Estate to purchase another Basquiat license for $10,000 a year or select a local artist. If the city vouches for the local option, the city will pay $25,000 for design, production, and installation, and NFC will provide a $5000 grant to the artist. Finally, the city could opt for the standard blue wall seen at most of the current 500 locations, which would cost $10,000.

While not $110 million, the costs are not insignificant. With fundraising assistance from the NFC, the city could raise the money through a combination of donations, sponsorships from health care and fitness organizations, and the General Fund.

Commissioners also wanted to know who would supervise the equipment (the ADA-compliant structure would be monitored like any other city playground, though it would only be available to people 14 or older), the size of the court (38′ x 38′), the capacity (30 people, without social distancing), and most pressing, where to put Basquiat and his balance beams. 

“I think discussion of any parks will get us into hot water right now, so I’m going to demure,” Community Services Director Jenny Rogers replied to Arts and Culture Commissioner Stephanie Vahn. “What we want to do is get direction today that you love it, and let’s find a location that’s not going to be controversial.” 

All Commissioners did seem to love it. “I think the outdoor aspect is of course phenomenal at this time, so to me this is a perfect fit for the city and combining it with art is so creative and unique,” said Arts and Culture Commissioner Karla Gordy Bristol, who noted that she produced an entire talk show about Basquiat. “And not just any art, to select such a phenomenal artist with a great legacy is something that I think is extra special.” 

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