WILMINGTON — A downtown art installation that received flack from the onset of its foundation two years ago will be coming down from Jervay Memorial Park by the end of the year.
Visible when traveling into downtown Wilmington on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now” has greeted passersby from the highway-facing park, situated in the Brooklyn Arts District. Councilman Kevin Spears sponsored its creation and implementation in 2020 and had it extended a year in 2021. After almost an hour of discussion Tuesday night, city council voted 5-2 to allow a 130-foot, 19-sign creation, mostly designed by local Black artists, to stay up only 90 more days before its removal.
The art installation was set to expire Sept. 26, 2022. Spears put forth a motion at the meeting to have its lifeline lengthened another year as the deadline loomed.
“I want it to be a promise from us to the people in our community that says we are willing to do the work to make Wilmington great for everybody,” he said in a plea for council members to grant the year-long stay. “That’s what it means to me. That’s what it means to those people in this audience.”
Luke Waddell suggested a submotion for the art work to come down in three months instead. He said that timeframe would be sufficient for its rightful owners, Janna Robertson and Greyson Davis, to find a new permanent home.
Spears indicated the art shouldn’t be removed from city-owned property until more heavy-lifting from the governing body is put forth for marginalized populations. He recognized votes taken by council to strengthen affordable housing and supporting nonprofits, but also said the art is symbolic to stand in unity against racism.
“Is France asking for the Statue of Liberty back?” Spears asked. “We’re the home of the free and brave. Everybody wants to come to the land of milk and honey, so send the damn Statue of Liberty back. We’re free, right?”
Separately, Waddell — the newest council member, who wasn’t present for previous votes to erect the art — suggested in coming months the governance committee put forth a policy that clarified the city’s stance on promoting public speech.
Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes and Mayor Bill Saffo — both of whom previously supported the installation — and councilman Neil Anderson agreed with Waddell’s action. Anderson said he feared allowing BLDM to be homed on public property would create Pandora’s Box for other organizations and agencies, such as the NRA or pro-choice groups, to ask the city stand behind their beliefs.
“This body, I don’t think, is really geared toward either of these things or would get involved with them, but some future counsel might — and we’ve set that precedent,” Anderson said. “I didn’t want to set that precedent, whether it’s something wonderful, like ‘Help Ukraine,’ or somebody else wants to ‘Build a Wall.’ I think it’s better for it to be done on private property.”
Spears asked city manager Tony Caudle if anyone has complained.
“Not to my knowledge — no, sir,” Caudle responded.
Councilman Charlie Rivenbark first spoke out against the installation in 2020 when Robertson and Davis, along with now-executive director of Port City United Cedric Harrison, first approached the city to consider letting artists paint “Black Lives Matter” along the pavement on Third Street. The messaging was seen in cities worldwide, coming out of the summer of 2020 Black Lives Matter protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder.
Rivenbark maintained then and last year it was racist: “If you think Black lives are the only ones that matter, you’ve got a problem.”
City staff first suggested to paint it on a side street other than Third — ”basically where no one would see it,” Robertson confirmed to Port City Daily. Staff also asked for the message to be massaged.
Artists had to add a “Do” and an additional sign stating “End Racism Now,” in order to stand apart from the national BLM organization, much to the dismay of local advocates.
Because the city asked to modify the original installation with four more words, city attorney John Joye determined it be maintained as the speech of the city until “this council” — or any elected council thereafter — voted to change the resolution. He also was clear it was only relegated to this particular instance and not open to other entities.
Waddell has been the first to suggest the creation of a policy around the issue of public speech. It comes a year after the city permanently removed the remnants of the century-old Confederate statues from downtown Wilmington.
Joye reported last year during a council meeting that, through research and city minutes going back many years, staff found Cape Fear 3 (CF3), the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), owned the Confederate monuments. The city had permitted them to be erected in medians downtown for a century, making the government entity a “de facto steward” of the statues.
The monuments were targets of vandalism throughout the years and as protesting spots during 2020.
“They kept Confederate monuments for a hundred years as city speech,” Robertson told PCD, “and they kept this for two.”
Roberston added the BLDM installation had not been destructed or trashed in its short timespan.
Spears said last year and Tuesday night he would re-approach the city every year about the extension of the installation as long as more work needed to be done to make Black constituents equitably represented.
“We made an agreement that we put this up for a year, and then a year came by and it was supposed to come down,” Rivenbark said Tuesday to Spears. “You came back and said, ‘Let’s do one more year’ — and here we are back again. We’ll be doing this 20 years from now. We had an agreement — let’s stick by the agreement.”
Councilmember Barnett implored council to understand the art was more than a few signs. He asked to share a video of Black children watching the newest Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.” It features the lead character Arial as a Black mermaid and kids reacting to seeing her for the first time.
“For those little kids, it mattered,” Barnett said after the screening, referring to representation. “And what I think I want us to see is that for those little kids, that sign matters.”
Robertson agreed. She told Port City Daily the first day the BLDM installation went up, it was emotional — and not just for the 18 artists who each created a letter.
“A bunch of little Black kids went over and saw that the city had put up something about them, for them,” she said. “I was crying, Greyson was crying — it was amazing. And so when they were saying this was more than an art installation, they’re right. It is.”
Anderson pointed to work the city has done, including putting forth Rise Together, as an important indicator of moving the needle in the right direction. The city signed the initiative two years ago, recognizing events like the 1898 Massacre have disproportionately affected African American populations from prospering locally.
Leaders added their John Hancock as an understanding they overcome ongoing challenges and identify unfinished work, reflect on progress made, and develop constructive responses that involve the whole community. The initiative also inspired the hiring of the city’s first equity and inclusion officer, Joe Conway.
“And where is Joe?” Spears asked Tuesday.
“On vacation,” Caudle replied.
“He should have sent a message of support for this,” Spears said.
Haynes asked to bring back Waddell’s submotion but not before expressing her full support of the sentiment displayed in the art, disavowing the All Lives Matter narrative that has been used in retaliation to BLM chants.
“I do not believe all lives can matter until everyone realizes black lives matter,” Haynes said.
She also praised the work put into the art. Eighteen letters showcase various cultural and historical references to Wilmington’s community, from designs depicted in homage to the area’s premier Black artist Minnie Evans and illustrations of the 1898 Memorial reflecting resiliency, to portraits of luminaries like Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, to messages of acceptance, such as “Love Somebody.”
“I’ve seen a number of these installations in different places,” Haynes said. “I think it’s probably the nicest one I have seen; we have something pretty special here.”
Still, she stood by the notion it should remain a permanent fixture on private property and called out to Cameron Art Museum or the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County as possible entities that could help.
Yet, at the end of the day where the art moves is not dictated by the city. Robertson and Davis, who founded the collective Eighteen Forward that spearheaded the artists behind the creation of BLDM, will decide. Roberston said she has not been approached by any interested parties at this time to relocate the work but is open to suggestions.
Last year, before the renewal of the installation took place, she was in talks with the former executive director of the Community Boys and Girls Club about possibly moving it on land near the organization, located a half-mile from Jervay Memorial Park.
That won’t work now, she surmised: “They have a grant to develop that big open field behind them.”
Robertson is also concerned that, even if she does move it to a private property, the city still will weigh in on whether it can be installed. The city updated its land development code last December, including regulations for signage and public art, some subject to size limitations.
Under the code, a property owner located in the central business district and outside the historic district overlay can place a sign on any façade, with an area up to 20% of the wall it’s attached to, at a maximum of 200 square feet.
The updated ordinance says murals of unlimited square footage are allowed on Castle Street (from the river to Wrightsville Avenue) and in the Brooklyn Arts District along North Fourth Street (from Red Cross to Nixon street).
“But my issue is that you can’t put 19 signs on private property facing a street like at Jervay,” Robertson said.
Thousands of cars traveled past the mural daily, making it an immediate attraction (it even ranks on Trip Advisor). It was also used for local school and university educational opportunities, and was filmed in Fox’s “Our Kind of People,” which set up production in town in 2021.
“Where is a big enough property for a 130-foot piece of artwork?” Robertson asked.
Land near Lighthouse Films — which made a documentary about the BLDM installation — is located in the Brooklyn Arts District and could work, she speculated, but it would take investors: “And that’s a long shot.”
She put in a request to city staff Wednesday morning asking for clarity on whether the 8-foot signs would violate height restrictions (“I thought they were only supposed to be 6 feet”). She also asked how far away from the street signs can be installed.
Port City Daily reached out to the city for clarification as well but didn’t hear back by press; the article will be updated with information as it’s available.
Robertson said it will take a couple thousand dollars to move the aluminum signs. They have to be secured four feet into the ground with concrete, so if installed traditionally — and not on the side of a building — surveyors would have to be hired to ensure the art work wouldn’t impair underground utility lines.
“But the letters are not going in storage,” she assured. “They will go somewhere.”
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