Letter: Kingston art policy not oppression but protection

I think the time has come to have a peaceful and open conversation about the meaning of a public art policy for Kingston. There are many in this city who understand the need for a policy and here’s why. It’s not about the past, it’s about the future. How do we want our city to be going forward? Many think we need a clear and fair policy that protects the rights of artists, will determine who takes care of our public art and will give everyone from building owner to artist to the neighborhood guidelines that are clear and well understood. It’s called an open and inclusive conversation. It is not about oppressing public art but protecting it, encouraging and supporting it, and making a level playing field for all.

Kingston is full of wonderful creative people. Many of these creatives are involved with making art both privately and publicly. We also have a city that actively supports our creative community and looks for ways to integrate that art into the City of Kingston. There is rarely a creative project the city is not interested in and actively supporting. I’ve seen this through first hand experience as a community volunteer and as an owner of a business that helps artists express themselves every day.

I started as an artist, have a degree in fine art, and have pieces in several national museum collections. I understand the artist’s point of view. I support freedom of expression, the importance of art to our well-being, and how art helps us build bridges and ultimately communicates our humanness to ourselves and others. We are a city where we want that public expression to continue to grow and thrive. But how do we do this fairly and clearly going forward? We are striving as a city to be just, a place where all voices can be heard and woven into the conversation.


As Kingston looks at its future and what we want that to be, I think it is fair for the City of Kingston to be part of the conversation of what happens with and to art in a public way. How will public art be taken care of, who will honor the rights of artists that create public art, and how will the city create an open dialogue with the neighborhood where public art is to be placed? 

There are artists calling City Hall every month trying to figure out how to create work in a public way in Kingston and there are no written guidelines. Nothing exists. Isn’t it fair and reasonable that the City of Kingston, with its burgeoning arts scene, now wants to create a policy for the future that is clear and fair to all who want to create public art in Kingston? I think the city deserves to be included in the dialogue about what takes place here. This is about public, private, and NFPs working together. I think we are the city that can do that.

The time has come to create clarity with specific guidelines which may include constructive conversations with the artist and the city about materials and placement, and then opening it up to the community where art will be placed. The rights of artists need to be spelled out clearly and the designation of who is responsible for the upkeep of the city’s public artworks needs clarification. We want our public art protected and preserved.

Is this such a strange request from a city of 24,000 people? Nearly every city in America has a public art policy, including some of the most progressive and open cities in America. We can make a policy that speaks to all of us and encourages us to work together to keep public art thriving in Kingston.

A narrative of fear and disgust is being spread in Kingston regarding the idea of the city’s involvement in any kind of public art policy. It is a destructive narrative and has been carefully crafted to bring out anger and even hate to make the City of Kingston the enemy. This city is not the enemy. Just look at all the things Kingston has supported including the use of City Hall for art shows and art happenings. The recent sound expo at City Hall honoring the work of world-renowned and avant-garde musician Pauline Oliveros and the hosting of rap poet and ceramic artist Roberto Lugo all within recent months are perfect examples of our city’s support of artistic freedom. Does this seem like a city that wants to repress free expression and does not support the arts? These accusations put out from members of Kingston are not representative of the majority, especially given how most of us live and behave in this city. It does not reflect the cooperation and enthusiasm those of us who work with the city feel. We are a city of collaborators. In my opinion we have a city that deeply embraces the arts, and only wants clear guidelines for public art going forward. This is so all will be treated fairly with equal guidelines and the rights of artists will be honored and protected going forward. This is not about the past, it is about the future. 

We are here now. What was before, has passed. In this case it is going to be necessary to do some deep listening to the other voices in Kingston who are gathering together not to oppress or curtail artistic expression but to give some simple structure to how public art is going to be done going forward. Actually, it is quite a simple and practical thing to do which will allow our public art and Kingston, as the City of the Arts, to continue to thrive.

Anne Bailey

There are 7 comments

  1. Tuli Kupferberg

    “Armenia, Armenia,
    God shed his grace on thee.
    And crown thy good,
    With brotherhood,
    From sea to shining sea.”

  2. Julie

    While the city has every right to have guidelines on art on, or in public property, they must not be allowed to impede the rights of private property owners. We already have committees to vet changes to property facades in the historic district, so no one can just go and paint the front of their building. But if someone wants a mural on the side or back of their building, that happens to be visible to the public, that is their prerogative and not the business of the city.

    1. Common Sense Future Tense

      What exactly are the rights of private property owners? You give a good example of precedent for an extreme limitation of private property rights- you can’t do anything to a historic building without approval, even if you “own” it. I don’t know the Kingston zoning code well but pretty much any city or village usually has some stipulation about the appearance of any building matching the “overall character and appearance of the neighborhood,” which can be used to rule out pretty much any unusual design element. To do something funky you have to be out in the country. The idea that a city only has the right to have guidelines for the visual appearance of public property isn’t reflected in any zoning law I’ve ever encountered.

    2. Box

      So, you’re okay with a corporation paying a property owner to use that wall that just so happens to be visible to paint an advertisement? Private property can influence everyone, just ask the folks living next to the Irish Cultural Center…

  3. Kingston Guy

    Agree with the author of this opinion letter, in part this can help add legitimacy to what has been a wonderful
    organic process – by ‘legitimacy’ I mean it can actually help, and should help, establish workshops and grants that this same oversite group could teach artists to help establish a vibrant art program on public space.

    Julie asks isn’t it a building owner’s prerogative to paint the side of their own building, even if its visible from a distance. Not really, for a variety of reasons, towns have “sign” and “billboard” guidlines and often large-scale murals currently fall into those guidlines…which is actually bad for the artist. Additionally, and artist might want to paint their building and it could lean into being offensive to the community…classic example…Ancient Asian art depicts the swastika as a symbol of peace, which was then coopted by Adolf Hiltler and the Nazi’s as a symbol of hate…which most people don’t know. So, a well-intentioned artist could wind up painting a four-story swastika rising above a Kingston neighborhood with the best intentions of presenting Asian art in a historic or contemporary context. But in truth, nobody is going to want to star at a giant swastika. (Or boobs, or penises)…you get it.

    So, the creation of a space for dialog about public art is actually valuable, and as I stated, it could lead to
    programs to actually assist artists in funding works of public art.

    Kingston has a tendancy to over-react on issues, from public art to development, and I think we need to slow it down and just have rational conversations vs. freak outs all the time.

    95% of the time what was hyped as being controversial, actually gets done and in hindsight we ask what was the big deal?!?!

  4. Bob Hueber

    Unfortunately giving censorship ability to a committee that is open and is not planning to oppress anyone, gives no guarantee that the next inhabitants of the committee won’t use their ability differently later. In fact it gives a framework for that exact thing to happen.

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