In what has become an annual fall ritual, each October noteworthy muralists from around the world converge on Kingston for the O+ Festival to transform blank walls into vivid works of art.
In another fall ritual, each successive festival is accompanied by some grumbling about the murals and their impact on the city’s streetscape. Much of the criticism is the sort of disagreement over aesthetics that accompanies any work of public art — especially street art, which began as an outlaw activity before becoming an internationally recognized and celebrated genre.
But others ask a more pointed question when it comes to murals painted on walls in the city’s historic districts: How, in neighborhoods where the smallest changes to architectural features are vetted and overseen by a city committee charged with maintaining historic character, is the festival able to install large, modern, semi-permanent works of art?
The answer, according to preservationists and O+ organizers, involves the U.S. Constitution, the impermanent nature of wall art and the need for neighborhoods to evolve with the times.
“Our mission is to preserve historic buildings, but also to have a vibrant community,” said Jack Braunlein, who heads the board of directors of Friends of Historic Kingston.
“To move ahead and not become stagnant and frozen in time, you have to balance respect for the past with desires for the future.”
The Friends of Historic Kingston was formed in 1966 amid concerns that a nationwide frenzy of “urban renewal” could erase the city’s 300-year-old architectural heritage. Since then, the city has established four historic districts, including in the original Dutch settlement of Wiltwyck (Uptown’s Stockade District) and the old village of Rondout downtown. A historic preservation ordinance regulates both new construction and modifications to existing structures. Compliance with the ordinance is overseen by the city’s seven-member Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission (HLPC). According to the city’s historic preservation manual, the commission must review “any exterior change to [a] building that is visible from the street” on any designated historic building or any building within one of the historic districts.
The guide goes on to stress the importance of maintaining original materials and architectural features and color schemes appropriate to the building’s era. A section on preserving “eclectic” buildings built between 1885 and 1920 includes guidelines for color which read, “Colors should blend with and complement the overall color schemes on the same street. Bright and obtrusive colors are discouraged. Painted brick should be painted, but unpainted brick should remain unpainted.”
James Sottile served as Kingston’s mayor from 2002 to 2012. In an interview this week, he said that he had seen Stockade District property owners forced to “jump through hoops” by the HLPC for something as simple as painting their windowsills. Sottile, who is retired and lives in Florida, said he supported O+ when it held its first festival in 2010 but now wonders about the why the organizers are not held to the same strict standards as homeowners in the historic districts.
“Looking at it from afar there doesn’t seem to be any rules or regulations,” said Sottile. “Or if there are they don’t seem to be adhered to.”
But HLPC Chairman Mark Grunblatt, an attorney, said that attempting to regulate murals in the historic district raised thorny questions about the constitutionally protected right to free expression. Works of art, as opposed to simple color choices, enjoy protection under the First Amendment, Grunblatt said. The issue was further complicated by the fact that-in the early 2000s, the city had authorized the creation of a mural in the Peace Park on North Front Street, thereby establishing a precedent.
“Having allowed it once makes it very difficult to bar someone else from doing it,” said Grunblatt.
Grunblatt said the commission’s hands-off approach to the murals was also influenced by the fact that the artworks did not fundamentally change architectural details or replace original materials. Instead, Grunblatt said, the commission regarded the murals as temporary alterations.
“The glory of historic preservation is that we have the luxury of thinking in terms of decades,” said Grunblatt. “And murals don’t typically last decades.”
Grunblatt said historic preservationists had been “annoyed” back in 2013 when noted street artist Gaia partially covered over historic advertisements painted on a the side of a Crown Street building to create one of the best known O+ murals, the towering “Artemis Emerging From the Quarry.” That incident led to meeting between festival organizers and the HLPC to discuss informal guidelines.
Grunblatt said the commission’s focus was not on regulating the actual artworks, but on ensuring that they do not become eyesores as they age. Grunblatt said the commission had impressed on festival organizers the need for owners of properties hosting the murals to take responsibility or either maintaining them or eventually removing them, using techniques that would not damage underlying architectural features. Grunblatt said meetings with O+ organizers had resulted in some informal guidelines and principals that he hoped to formalize ahead of the next festival.
“I can see the tension [between artistic expression and preservation] but in the commission’s view, these are temporary artistic impressions,” said Grunblatt. “Some people are going to love them some people are going to hate them, that’s how art is. We just want to make sure that they do not become a visual drag on the area as time goes on and they begin to deteriorate.”
The coven’s process
Artist Denise Orzo, an O+ co-founder, serves on the committee of “Art Witches” charged with curating the festival. Orzo explained the committee solicits submissions for new murals each year. In some cases, artists submit concepts on their own; in other cases, the committee will seek out well-known muralists. Artists must submit a concept for their work in line with the festival’s annual theme. This year’s theme was “Home”; previous themes have included “Mothers of invention,” “The Other,” “Flux” and “Scale.” Once a concept is approved, the artist must provide the Art Witches with a mockup of the proposed mural.
“We look at artistic merit, whether a work will fit with our theme and whether we have a place for it,” said Orzo.
Brooklyn-based artist Jia Sung, who created a mural on the side of the Redwood restaurant on North Front Street for this year’s fest, said she was familiar with historic preservation concerns from her experiences growing up in Singapore. There, Sung said, merchants and residents often expressed frustration about restrictions imposed in the city’s historic districts. Sung said she looks at street art a way for present-day residents of historic neighborhoods to stake a claim there.
“It may be a question better put to the community,” said Sung. “But I think maybe it’s a way for a community to feel they have a say in creating a sense of ownership and relevance to the modern day.”
Sottile, meanwhile, said that he continues to support the O+ festival. On visits to Kingston, the veteran politician said, he’s impressed by a wave of new faces, new businesses and new life on city streets that he believes the festival helped bring. But he said he remains concerned about issues of fairness, selective enforcement and cumulative impact when it comes to the city’s most historic neighborhoods.
“As mayor, I always embraced change, but you have to do it in an orderly way,” said Sottile. “What I see here is a transition that’s happening so rapidly that it looks like the details have not been thought through.”
Activate the commission
As O+’s artistic footprint has expanded from a handful of walls in the Stockade District to 29 murals throughout the city, questions like Sottile’s about what is appropriate and where have become more pressing. Mayor Steve Noble said Wednesday he had turned to the city’s Arts Commission to seek answers, tasking it with developing a public art policy and develop guidelines for murals and other public exhibitions. Noble said the commission would seek input from artists and other city residents to develop a policy that balanced artistic freedom with community concerns. Noble said that he expected the policy to be in place before next year’s O+ festival.
“I do feel that there is a consensus among everyone that we need to do a better job about having these discussions about public art,” said Noble.