In the face of some skepticism, city officials unveiled a draft version of a new policy to regulate public art, including murals and other installations on private property, at a public hearing at City Hall on Tuesday, May 21.
While city officials say the intent of the policy is to aid and promote the city’s booming arts scene, many speakers expressed concerns ranging from doubt about the need for such a policy to fear that government involvement would inevitably stifle creativity and lead to censorship.
The policy — which, city officials stress, is in draft form and subject to change following public comment — lays out an approval process, application fees and other guidelines for all “art in public.” The policy defines public art as art placed on city property or “artwork that is over six feet in height, fully or partially visible from a public sidewalk or city owned property” and “intended for exterior display of longer than one week.” Under the policy, all public art will need to go through an approval process overseen by a five-member panel appointed by the mayor. Applicants will be required to submit documentation, including contact information for the artist or owner of the work, photos of the site, a rendering of the dimensions of the work and a list of proposed materials. The city will charge an application fee of $25, but applicants can submit as many works as they like in a single application.
The draft policy also includes a handful of restrictions, including a ban on painting on raw brick dating before 1960 or any bluestone surface. Artists or owners of public art will also be required to maintain the works without alteration for as long as they remain on display, unless the artist waives their rights under a 1990 law that prohibits the unauthorized alteration of artwork. The policy also requires a sign-off from both the Heritage Area Commission and the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission for any artwork displayed in the city’s five historic districts.
City Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs Adrielle Farr, who presented the policy and fielded questions from the about 100 people in attendance, stressed that the public art panel would not vet artworks based on their content. In fact, Farr said, artists would not have to present any visual representations or descriptions of the work beyond their dimensions.
“Successful policies are policies that do not restrict content,” said Farr.
Instead, Farr said that the policy — which was developed by the city’s arts commission in consultation with local arts groups — was intended to create a system that allowed public art to flourish while taking into account existing city codes and historic preservation guidelines. Farr said the policy was developed based on examination of polices in a dozen communities-including Philadelphia, Pa. and Portland, Ore. with robust public art scenes. Rather than simply applying existing codes covering issues like signage, advertising and historic preservation to public artworks, the policy, Farr said, took into account the nuances and sometimes spontaneous nature of the creative process. The policy would also help protect artists work and avoid situations where the city would have to remove or alter artwork because of vandalism or deterioration.
“We want to create a system where we will not have removals, we will not have closed conversations,” said Farr. “We want to have conversations before there is action.”
A solution in search of a problem?
Most of the speakers expressed varying levels of skepticism about the policy. Some, like Donna Schlachman questioned why the city had created a policy at all.
“I came tonight to hear what the problems are that created the need for this policy,” said Schlachman. “And I’m not hearing it.”
Others, like Kingston-based artist Matt Pleva, who has created large murals on North Front Street and at the Rondout’s boat building school, worried that government regulation of public art would inevitably lead to restrictions based on content.
“I don’t believe for one minute that content will not be considered, there is no way to make these decisions without it,” said Pleva. “How can someone who doesn’t want it know they don’t want it if they can’t see it? [Content] will become an issue, and that’s censorship.”
The strongest voices in opposition to the new policy came from organizers of the O+ Festival. Now in its 10th year, the annual event draws world-renowned muralists, musicians and other artists to Kingston each October. In exchange for their work, participating artists receive free medical and dental care. Over the years dozens of murals and other installations have been placed on walls around the city after being vetted by the festival’s committee of “Art Witches.” The festival has also courted controversy with some residents raising objections to the content of the large public displays and others questioning why the works are exempt from city regulations governing everyday activities, like repainting a house or building a fence, in the city’s historic neighborhoods.
Festival co-organizer Joe Concra accused the city of misrepresenting the intent of the policy in their discussions with O+ representatives while the document was being drafted. Concra said that he and others were led to believe the policy would only apply to installations on city-owned property.
Concra added that the festival engaged a “deep process” to select works for public display, a process that took into account content, artistic merit, community sensibilities and historic preservation. The festival, he said, had operated in cities across the country and developed a keen understanding of how to bring art to the public square.
“We know not to paint the Liberty Bell, we know not to paint the Senate House,” said Concra. “We know that.”
Denise Orzo, who chairs the O+ committee in charge of selecting artworks, said the city’s sudden interest in regulating public art — just as its long-touted arts scene was taking off — felt “opportunistic.”
“It’s like the city is co-opting this beautiful thing that has grown organically,” said Orzo. “There is no place for Kingston government to be deciding what art gets made and what art doesn’t get made.”
Defenders of the policy made the case that it would allow for public input into the issue of public art. Maria Elena Farrar of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission noted that art is one of the factors driving gentrification in the city, making it an issue of public concern.
“This city is not only artists, this city is populated by a lot of people,” said Farrar. “Believe it or not, art is helping gentrification, so let’s keep the rights of everybody in mind.”
Erica Brown voiced support for the policy based on her experience organizing events for nonprofit groups in the city. The work, she said, involved coordinating with city officials, obtaining permits and seeking public input. Brown questioned why the installation of art in public spaces should be handled differently. Brown said the new policy would create an avenue for people to have a voice, by way of democratically elected officials, in how the city handles public art.
“There are so many people in the world who have to deal with that red tape,” said Brown. “I think [The public art policy] is a good start to a conversation.”