Art on private property legislation is back at City Hall - with a lot fewer sponsors

Wednesday October 22, 2014 10:55 am EDT


A few months ago, arts advocates and neighborhood residents managed to slam the brakes on Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd's proposal to require property owners to seek permission before installing sculptures or painting murals on their land.

Well, the proposal is back. And Sheperd's colleagues who at first signed on to the controversial proposal are now backing away from the measure.

Originally, property owners would first have to seek approval from neighborhood groups, city officials, and the City Council before painting a mural or erecting a statue that would be visible from a sidewalk or any other public property. The move, Sheperd said, was intended to give communities a chance to provide input - and potentially prevent neighborhood strife - about murals and artwork.

But the legislation had problems. Some in the arts community expressed concern that the process could stifle artistic expression. There were other concerns over whether the proposal violated the First Amendment. And the measure was also vague on what defined art. Was a bird bath a sculpture? Could non-traditional house colors be considered a mural? And finally, why should residents and business owners have to get the city's OK before painting their walls?

Sheperd subsequently swapped out the legislation with another version that exempts sculptures, making murals the focus of the ordinance. It would also be moved to a different section of the city code. By doing so, the measure had to go back to Neighborhood Planning Units for consideration.

That brings us to last week, when the legislation appeared on Council's Zoning Committee agenda for discussion. Last Wednesday, committee members moved the legislation to a different committee, where policymakers are expected to start picking it apart.

Councilwoman Mary Norwood made the motion. She also promptly removed her and seven other sponsors' names from the proposal. The at-large councilwoman and former mayoral candidate says she some of her colleagues had expressed a desire earlier in the process to no longer sponsor Sheperd's proposal. Now, when it was restarting the legislative process after going through the Neighborhood Planning Units, was a good time.

Norwood advises CL not to read too much into the legislative move. Just because a councilmember takes his or her name off legislation doesn't mean they're going to strike it down.

"It doesn't mean they will or won't vote for it at the end of the day," Norwood says. "It means they're not choosing to be a cosponsor at the moment."

What does Norwood think about the proposal? She says a long time has passed since Council first tapped the brakes on the public art legislation. Norwood plans to review her notes, listen to the community, and discuss the issue with fellow councilmembers.

Sheperd did not respond to a text message last week seeking comment. Her voice mailbox was also full. Melissa Mullinax, Mayor Kasim Reed's senior advisor, said last week that the administration has not had a chance to review the proposal and therefore couldn't comment.

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