City Hall wants to regulate art on private property

When does a birdbath become a sculpture - and why do we try to legislate away debates over public art?


  • Dustin Chambers/CL File
  • Art that’s visible from the street, city parks, or other public areas would have to be permitted under legislation currently being vetted by neighborhood advisory groups

Want to paint a mural on the side of your house? Install a small sculpture in your front yard? Maybe just paint your home a non-traditional color? You would need to first get the OK from City Hall, according to legislation that’s currently making its way through Atlanta’s neighborhood advisory groups.

City officials are pushing legislation that would require people to get the OK from multiple City Hall departments - in addition to presenting the idea to your neighbors - before placing “public art” on their private property that might be visible from the sidewalk.

The effort is being led by Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd and is similar to a measure pitched last summer - and blasted by CL - to create a public-art approval process. The policy change was proposed in reaction to controversy over Living Walls murals in Southeast Atlanta and the Pittsburgh neighborhood. Sheperd’s voicemail was full on Tuesday and Wednesday and she did not respond to two text messages seeking comment.

The legislation, as written, appears aimed at preventing future controversies over murals painted on private property but which are visible to the public. It also seeks to prevent commercial messages from trying to masquerade as public art. But judging from the language, it could be much more far-reaching. And it raises some pretty interesting questions. When does a bird bath become a “sculpture?” Could residents snitch on their neighbors if they disagree with their paint job? And are debates over public art something that can be legislated away?

The city is tiptoeing into this issue again, the legislation says, because without “reasonable regulations,” displays of works of art on private property “can become excessive, can be distracting and dangerous to motorists and pedestrians, can be used to display commercial messages... and substantially detract from the beauty and appearance of the city.” There’s even a mention of preserving the tree canopy and the requisite safety, health, and welfare of Atlanta’s dare citizens.

So what constitutes “public art?” Says the legislation:

Public art is for the purposes of this article defined as an expression of creative skill or imagination in a visual form, such as painting or sculpture which is intended to beautify or provide aesthetic influences to public areas on private property or areas on private property which are visible from the public right of way or other public spaces. Public art may be physically expressed as the creation of a structure or the depiction of visual expression located on the outside of a building on private property and which is visible from a City park, sidewalk, street or other right-of-way. Certain definitional criteria are included in the definition for the purpose of differentiating the expression from commercial speech that is regulated by the Sign Ordinance and for the purpose of preventing distraction to vehicular and pedestrian traffic and providing certain reasonable safeguards that will protect the quiet enjoyment of adjacent property or property from which such expression is visible.

“Street furniture or incidental decorative structures which are required or permitted by the Zoning
Code” won’t require a permit. No telling just yet what an “incidental decorative structure” is.

So how would this work?

? ? ?
Let’s say you own a store and want to paint a mural on one of your exterior walls. The legislation, which creates a new article in the city code titled “Works of art on Private Property,” creates a process you must follow to make that happen.

First, you’d have to submit an application to the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs “with a sufficient number of copies to allow simultaneous routing for the certifications required.” That would include: the property address and county parcel ID number of where the proposed public art will be located; the work’s overall dimensions and the materials used; an artist’s statement; and a notarized statement from the property owner signing off on the application, among several other details.

Then OCA’s executive director has to determine whether the proposed art jibes with the “written criteria of the city’s public art program.” The city’s traffic and transportation department has to ensure the art won’t distract motorists. And the Urban Design Commission has to confirm that the art “is not commercial speech or does not contain a commercial message.”

Each department has 30 days to do so. If anyone rules against you, you have the right to appeal their decisions at Fulton County Superior Court within 30 days.

Once the application gets the OK, the applicant must present the proposed piece of art - that, again, is being placed on private property - to the NPU where it will be located. If everyone’s taking his or her time and that month’s NPU meeting has already been held, then you’d most likely have to wait until its next meeting. The NPU then has 30 days to make a recommendation to OCA. The city councilmember who represents that area will also file a personal paper in support of the proposed artwork - that is, if he or she supports it.

Once all the appropriate materials have been filed, an ordinance for the application would be written. Then comes the part that constitutional lawyers might enjoy.

“The City Council may approve the ordinance presenting the Application, with or without conditions or may vote to adverse the ordinance,” it says.

We’re not lawyers - and we’re sure some lawyers would like to argue about the language, which we welcome! But based on our reading of the legislation, that means the city can block someone from expressing themselves on his or her own property.

At least one neighborhood advisory group, NPU Y, has already unanimously voted against the proposal.

If you’d like to opine on the legislation, comment below. Or head to your next NPU meeting. Some have rules against new members voting, but you can at least let your voice be heard.

Public Art on Private Property, Atlanta City Ordinance by thomaswheatley