Atlantans get first chance to debate public art on private property proposal; substitute ordinance unveiled

New measure focuses just on murals, changes NPU requirements


  • Dustin Chambers/CL File
  • Ordinance aiming to prevent controversies over murals on private property still raises questions

Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd yesterday, in the first public meeting about her [http://clatl.com/freshloaf/archives/2014/03/20/city-hall-wants-to-regulate-art-on-private-property|controversial proposal to regulate art on private property, announced she was changing the ordinance in response to Atlantans' collective outcry.
Sheperd opened the work session, the first opportunity that Atlantans have had to present their questions and comments, by immediately proposing the substitute ordinance. Before explaining the changes, she defended the how and why of the amendment. "I just want to go on record saying that the City of Atlanta, and me in particular, loves art," Sheperd said. "So how did we get here to this legislation?"

The councilwoman cited the 2012 Living Walls mural controversy along the border of Pittsburgh, one of the southwest Atlanta neighborhoods she now represents, as drawing her attention to what she considered a lack of community input and inconsistencies in the process to approve art on private property.

"There were a lot of little flaws that we thought should be cleaned up to be more succinct for us as a council, for the community as a whole, and also for the artists who come down here, who would have to go through the process that was actually created in 1982," she said.

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So how does this new substitute ordinance differ? For one, the broad titular term "Works of Art on Private Property" has been replaced with the more specific "Murals on Private Property." This shift in language completely removes sculptures or installations from the conversation to focus on painted buildings, which Sheperd said was her original intent. This new mural ordinance would also be moved to Chapter 46 of the City code "Civic and Cultural Affairs," while her previous ordinance fell under Zoning.

"It may have been too broad," Sheperd said. "It may have overstepped the limits."

The most significant shift in Sheperd's revised ordinance outlines how the community where the mural is proposed will be notified. Under the original amendment, the artist of the proposed work was required to appear in front of the Neighborhood Planning Unit. The NPU would then have to make a recommendation. Now, the NPU must only be notified of the proposed mural by a representative or sponsor of the artist.

"The goal is to be transparent with the community," Sheperd said. Both the councilwoman and Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Shahar emphasized the importance of increasing dialogue between the artists and the community members. But questions remained about the ordinance.

"What if I were to move into any of the neighborhoods that had these controversies and I were to paint a mural that was not welcome?" said Living Walls co-founder Monica Campana, the person first to speak during the session. "Do I have to follow the ordinance if this is my house? I understand that an ordinance needs to be in place. I just don't understand why this process has to be so difficult. We want transparency. I think if we were to not have this many steps it will be more transparent."

These two major concerns were echoed by individual artists, as well as speakers representing gloATL, Mailchimp, Eyedrum, and community associations. Though some speakers rejected an approval process for public art altogether, several others also recognized the need for cooperation.

"Some kind of consistency and sustainable practice is really necessary to continue to make things happen," artist Jessica Caldas said. "I would definitely hope that you all who are working on it would engage directly with the organizations that are producing this work and really focus on their issues. I'm honestly a huge fan of the NPU requirement, I know that getting on a calendar is a really hard thing to do and we're all really busy, but those are just the realities unfortunately of being engaged in this field and process."

Councilwoman Felicia Moore, one of several fellow councilmembers who sat alongside Sheperd, wondered what would happen if she wanted to paint her own house "like a big Bozo face, be real artistic" - as well as what consequences she would face for not complying with the ordinance. Shahar said that Moore's Bozo house would indeed need to follow the application process. But she had no definitive answer for the second question.

Sheperd emphasized that this is still the beginning of the process. "There is no rush at this point," she said. "We can take our time and get it right."

Campana as well sounded hopeful about the continuation of this dialogue. "I see this as a huge opportunity for the artist and for the city of Atlanta to work together and to actually come up with a great process for us to keep creating public art."]