WILMINGTON — For arts council director Rhonda Bellamy, the City of Wilmington’s vote earlier this week to allow art and murals in commercial areas districtwide has been a decade in the making.
An update to the land development code ensures property owners will be able to more easily bespeckle outdoor spaces with color and character. It also will help the move of the prominent Black Lives Do Matter art installation from Jervay Park this December into a place it continues to benefit the community.
Bellamy has been advocating to city leaders for years about adopting public art language into its land code, a high priority she receives ongoing questions about within the community.
“The arts council fields inquiries about murals monthly, especially from local businesses,” Bellamy said.
Up until Tuesday, murals and art were lumped in with parameters of sign regulations in the city. For instance, it allowed a mural to take up 20% of wall space in downtown, outside the historic district overlay, yet wasn’t as strictly prohibitive in areas like Brooklyn Arts District and Castle Street.
The city often had to permit the art, whereas now, private property owners don’t need its approval — unless located in districts within the purview of the Historic Preservation Commission.
Any work pitched on city-owned land and public property still requires approval through appropriate channels.
The code specifies: “A given sign may possibly meet both the definition of art as well as that of a mural. In that case, the regulations applicable to art shall control and those for murals shall not apply.”
Art has no size restrictions as long as it doesn’t exceed the principal structure.
Murals scaled on primary frontage of a structure will have to follow wall sign allowances as determined by its district. If painted on the rear and secondary façades, the murals — which aren’t allowed on on roofs or fences — won’t be subject to square-footage limitations.
“Public art is the first arts experience visitors have and helps set the stage for the great theater, music, and gallery scenes we enjoy in Wilmington,” Bellamy said, referring to sculptures and murals.
Already there are plans to have them along the Wilmington Rail Trail. Bellamy added it could also mean turning dark or drab areas — such as underused alleyways — “into vibrant passages through downtown.”
The arts council is working with Clark Hipp on a project to take advantage of the land code update. Hipp who owns 221 N. Front St., which houses newly opened Drift Coffee, owned by Ben and Michael Powell. The side of the building faces a renovated Bijou Park, and the group wants to install a mural overlooking passersby crossing between Front and Water streets.
The arts council will devise a fundraising plan with Wilmington Downtown Inc. to gain public support and do a call for artists to retrieve possible renderings of the mural. The campaign will be complete, with an artist chosen by the end of the year, Bellamy said.
“We envision a colorful mural to pay homage to the former Bijou theater and Wilmington’s history,” she added.
Bijou Theatre existed downtown near a JC Penney in the mid-20th century but was torn down by the ‘60s. A park was built in its honor and recently was updated along North Front Street.
“We anticipate the possibility of unveiling the new mural during Memorial Day weekend,” Bellamy said.
What does it mean for the Black Lives Do Matter art installation?
One of the fundamental reasons to separate art and murals from signs in the land code came to fruition when council put a sunset on the “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now” mural in Jervay Memorial Park. Located on the northside of downtown, they voted 5-2 in September for it to come down by the end of the year.
Councilman Kevin Spears asked local artists Dr. Janna Robertson and Greyson Davis, as well as advocate and now-Port City United director Cedric Harrison to propose its construction and implementation in the summer of 2020. At the time, despite controversial pushback from council members Charlie Rivenbark and Neil Anderson, everyone was on board with its inclusion — but only after its original message, “Black Lives Matter,” was altered at the behest of council.
The government entity didn’t want to be associated with the national BLM organization. Since city staff requested the change, it adopted the mural as city speech but only for the duration the BLDM installation would be on display.
At that time, BLDM was slated to last a year, yet was reupped in 2021 for an additional 365 days. The council decided over a month ago the 130-foot, 19-letter creation could remain in place three more months before it needed to be rehomed.
Robertson runs her own nonprofit, Community Art Collaborative, and has painted and overseen community efforts to install murals across Wilmington for years — at the Northside pool, Voyage and DREAMS Center for Art Education. She told Port City Daily a few months ago she worried whether BLDM would find its rightful place after the council voted for its removal. Under the old land code, it would need approval due to its size and scope, likely to be hindered by the city’s sign rules.
At Tuesday’s meeting, as city leaders discussed giving murals and art its own section in the code, they questioned some of staff’s proposals to the update.
It was pitched for murals to go into all districts, both commercial and residential, at first. According to the ordinance, “art shall not exceed the height of the principal structure on which the art is located” — or rise above 12 feet on vacant lots without structures.
“So if I have a 35-foot house, I can have a 35-foot statue in my yard?” councilman Neil Anderson asked.
Zoning administrator Kathryn Thurston, who presented the changes, said yes.
She clarified there is no limit to how much art people are allowed to have on their properties. Many council members took umbrage with the lax regulation in a residential district.
“Whenever I tell you staff has struggled over murals for the past couple of years, that is an understatement,” Thurston said.
A recent case law out of Austin — City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin — provided more clear guidance, she said, over 2015’s Reed v. Town of Gilbert. The latter said there could not be differentiation between types of speech, while the former ruling noted distinguishable factors are apparent between commercial and non-commercial copy.
Thurston said the legal outcome provided staff “more comfort on expanding mural allowances.”
Anderson used this example: If someone painted fish on the side of a building, it would be art. But once they add words like “Jones Fish Market,” it becomes a sign.
“I would say that’s accurate,” Thurston said.
“But this is for commercial and residential?” Anderson reiterated, which Thurston confirmed.
He again pointed to the potential for neighbors to pepper their properties with multitudes of statues or paint murals on their houses in whatever fashion desired.
“I can’t imagine that somebody next door to me can put all that in their front yard and that ain’t gonna harm my property value,” Anderson said. “Let’s find a home for the Black Lives [Do] Matter mural, but it shouldn’t be in somebody’s front yard.”
He also feared the backlash it could bring when art’s messaging turns political: “You’re going to have Hatfield and Jones situations, where one neighbor’s got one thing looking down on another. It is going to create a trashy, hateful environment, potentially.”
Rivenbark, who has been against the BLDM mural since day one, calling it divisive and racist, didn’t agree with allowing residences to be pied with unfettered designs.
“Art and just out-and-out signage, I mean, the lines are beginning to get blurred,” Rivenbark said. “We don’t even allow somebody on a corner property to park his RV, you know, in front of the line of the house.”
Spears chimed in. He thought council was “drumming up fear” where it wasn’t needed and pointed to the fact that society has moved from “covert divisiveness to overt divisiveness” already.
“Also, someone would have to have the means to create a huge politically divisive mural at a residence, first of all, and everyone doesn’t have those means,” he said. “I mean, I see Trump signs being divisive. But that’s just me.”
The suggestion was made to strike residential areas from the art and mural section of the land code ordinance. Councilman Clifford Barnett wanted to ensure it would not negatively affect BLDM from finding a new home.
“If we disallow it in residential districts, then that installation would need to go into a non-residential district,” Thurston clarified.
Council agreed to remove residential areas from the updated land code to allow inclusion in all commercial districts only.
The change has opened an avenue for Robertson to ensure the Black Lives Do Matter art piece at least has a temporary place to be situated from January through May of next year. Though she wouldn’t reveal where it’s moving, Robertson said it will be prominently displayed in a high-traffic area, so as it reaches the most people.
At the mural’s current location in Jervay Park, thousands of vehicles entering downtown Wilmington from Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway are greeted by it near Harnett and Third streets.
“It has been an asset,” Robertson said, adding it served as a backdrop in local film productions, such as Fox’s “Our Kind of People,” and even has its own spot on TripAdvisor as a recommended stop while visiting Wilmington.
Robertson has been in talks with organizations like Boys and Girls Club, the Northside Food Co-Op and the YWCA about taking in the mural permanently. Nothing has come to fruition yet.
“I even plan to pitch it to the National African American Museum in Washington,” she said. “But we would like the final resting place to be in Wilmington because each letter is talking about African American contributions to Wilmington.”
Eighteen Forward, a collective founded by Robertson and Davis, consisting of 18 predominantly Black artists, each designed a letter. The imagery represents the influence and culture African Americans have had on the area, including the former Black beach resort Seabreeze, the 1898 massacre and memorial, and 1800s artist and Airlie Gardens gatekeeper Minnie Evans.
School groups and universities have visited the display for field trips and to learn about African American history, as well as diversity and inclusion.
“It’s an outdoor art gallery that educates our citizens,” Roberston said, “and we don’t think we’re done with the message.”
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