Arts & Theater

Wide open possibilities: Art can make towns thrive ... if government stays out of it

Sacramento’s 10-day Wide Open Walls festival may have passed, but the mark its murals have left on the city are indelible.

For the fourth straight year, the August event brought in 55 artists to add 40 new murals to a city that already boasted more than 100 colorful walls. The Sacramento Mural Festival launched in 2016 with the guiding mission to activate spaces throughout the city and bring art to all, then later became Wide Open Walls. While murals may be catching on as a nationwide movement, the concept of creative placemaking is nothing new.

In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts coined the term “creative placemaking ,” the process through which “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” Public art has many proven benefits beyond simply aesthetics: Murals boost civic pride, are a stimulus for economic development, improve mental health, promote equity and instill a sense of public safety.

Seeing a changed future

Wide Open Walls has spearheaded creative placemaking in Sacramento, serving as a catalyst for igniting blighted areas of communities and, in the process, turning the city into an art destination, attracting a sect of travelers who canvass the country in search of the best walls, secret murals and Instagrammable photo opps.

“Wide Open Walls has been a critical piece of driving national media attention to Sacramento,” says Mike Testa, president and CEO of the city’s destination marketing organization Visit Sacramento. “Projects like this are so important in sparking visitor curiosity, and we’re hopeful that as the festival itself continues to grow, more art fans will be drawn to Sacramento to see the murals for themselves.”

Wide Open Walls founder and producer David Sobon says the festival has taken areas like Improv Alley, previously known for drugs and high-crime rates, and helped reform the neighborhoods.

“I lived next door to the Alley, parked my car in the garage there and made it a personal mission to make it safe and attractive,” he says. “We had cooperation from the city to pave it, from our electrical company SMUD to light it, from our downtown partnership to patrol and clean multiple times a day, and then we added art. And a lot of it.”

Sobon says what was once “a scary place to walk – and nobody did” now attracts visitors both day and night and is the start of many mural tours. Economic development has followed with a new restaurant popping up and several tenants moving into the neighborhood.

“Now the Alley is a must-see destination for anyone touring the murals in Sacramento,” he says.

Sobon said the organization is currently focused on transforming an area in North Sacramento called Del Paso Boulevard into an arts and entertainment district. And while the arts advocate says he’s never run into any problems of local government trying to intervene and regulate the murals – on the contrary, the city of Sacramento helps fund the festival – other mural movements across the United States have not been so lucky.

When government attempts to regulate art

Cities can veer wrong with a program like Wide Open Walls by attempting to hinder artistic expression, something Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation can speak to firsthand. It’s been just over a year since PLF attorney Jeremy Talcott set a precedent in the world of public art by winning a monumental case in Mount Dora, Fla., in which a federal court affirmed the sanctity of an individual’s right of expression on their personal property.

According to Talcott, the couple had “a dowdy, white wall stained from dirt and pollen” in dire need of painting. Mount Dora had no aesthetic ordinances in place that would prohibit murals of any kind, so in 2017, residents Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski commissioned an artist to paint a replica of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” a piece beloved by her 25-year-old autistic son. The city balked; under its abandoned building code, Nemhauser and Jastrzebski were told the mural was considered graffiti and “that any graffiti must be painted to match the structure on the property,” Talcott says.

Their solution? To paint a mural that covered the entire house.

The city wasn’t happy with Nemhauser and Jastrzebski’s interpretation of their ordinance and began piling on fines of $100 a day, as well as demanded the couple remove the murals, calling them illegal “signs” and claiming they violated the sign code. But the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of expression, and ultimately, Nemhauser and Jastrzebski won in court in July 2018.

That’s not to say local government can’t exercise any control, but it must have a clearly articulated justification to regulate artistic expression, and any guidelines or ordinances must be “content neutral,” in the words of Talcott.

“There are a lot of sign codes that say ‘If it’s a real estate sign, it can be 3-by-4 feet,’ ‘If it’s a political sign, it can only be 1-by-3 feet,’ and ‘If it’s a business sign, it can be 10-by-100 feet.’ But if you have to see what kind of sign it is in order to know whether or not it’s prohibited, then it’s probably unconstitutional,” Talcott says.

And just within the past month, New Orleans-based group NOLA Mural Project had the city government remove restrictive regulatory guidelines that inhibited the ability of artists and property owners to host art on their buildings. It was a long-fought battle and is a major victory for revitalization and creative – and, in that case, political – expression.

Freedom of speech and other constitutional rights for artists have become a hot-button issue across the United States as more communities are decorated with big, bold murals, yet mural law is still relatively uncharted territory, considered the Wild West in many courtrooms.

“When a city is not creating a general objective set of laws that everyone knows what’s expected of them, and instead they’re using this idea of a lot of discretion on the part of the city officials to pick and choose what they will approve and what they will not, that’s where these laws really become vulnerable,” Talcott explains.

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