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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Power and Patronage: Public Art and Corporate Mural Commissions in Los Angeles, 1928–1936

  • Author(s): Jovanovich, Monica E.
  • Advisor(s): Kester, Grant
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the intersections of public space, corporate cultural philanthropy, and public art in urban settings. It analyzes examples of corporate art patronage found within the lobbies and entryways of corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, California in order to examine how these oft-overlooked commissions represent far more than simple marketing strategies, and instead, constitute important contributions to the larger history of art in California. Corporations displayed a commitment to contributing to the culture of the city and challenged negative perceptions around their public image through the strategic collecting and commissioning of modern art in the early twentieth century. By examining how corporations were able to strategically shape their public image through murals and architectural sculpture that presented a civically orientated corporate history, I contend that the commissioned artworks functioned as embodiments of the concept of corporate social responsibility. The resulting artworks have carefully constructed narratives of local history that present the corporation as protagonist and were marketed as lasting investments in Los Angeles’s cultural heritage. These narratives also countered public fears around capitalism that ranged from economic instability to corporate greed. Chapter one examines the intertwined history of corporations and philanthropy, looking specifically at the corporate cultural philanthropy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Chapter two contextualizes Los Angeles’s emerging art scene from 1900 to 1929 and explores the 1931 six-panel mural series of the Title Guarantee and Trust Company, which created an educational and aesthetic space within the elevator lobby through its corporate-friendly reading of Los Angeles history. A second case study is included in chapter two which looks to the 1931 Southern California Edison murals whose civic narrative reinforced Edison’s self-constructed role as a benevolent servant to the public and attempted to alleviate criticism around privately owned utilities. Chapter three investigates the 1935 Los Angeles Times murals that subtly referenced the antagonistic relationship between the newspaper and unions. Paired with this is a discussion of the 1936 California Fruit Growers Exchange murals in the Sunkist Building which contained idyllic depictions of citrus production and harvesting that were at odds with the harsh reality of exploited immigrant labor in Sunkist’s orange groves.

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