Private property owners have almost absolute freedom of expression under the U.S. Constitution when it comes to original works on their buildings, meaning business owners and individuals who want their own piece of public art needn’t wait until the next Wide Open Walls comes around. Commissioning original art is something they homeowners can do all on their own.
Wide Open Walls founder and producer David Sobon adds that as essential as it is to get local artists involved in his festival, it’s equally important to get them work throughout the year from private companies and individuals.
1. Check the rules
The critical first step is taking a look at the local zoning laws to see if they apply directly to murals or otherwise place restrictions on aesthetics for houses and buildings. From there, Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Jeremy Talcott says, it’s simple.
“If they don’t, go for it!” Talcott says. “In the absence of on-point regulations, you don’t need to ask government for permission to use your own property in a lawful way. But even if there are mural codes, things are also getting more interesting right now legally: because murals are expressive speech protected by the First Amendment, government must meet very strict legal tests when it tries to regulate murals. There have been several legal victories recently against local governments that have tried to create a ‘veto power’ over murals, because that allows government officials to pick and choose which speech is allowed.”
Talcott adds, “And if your local government does have a review board for murals and your mural is denied, contact a public interest attorney.”
A quick disclaimer: Signs or business logos are not protected by the First Amendment and likely are governed by local ordinances.
2. Find an artist
Next, find an artist whose body of work you admire and ask to set up a call.
“Typically, artists have thousands of ideas floating around in their heads that wouldn’t even occur to most people, so allow the artist to take liberties with these ideas and trust the instinct that drew you to their work in the first place,” says Scott van Velsor, president of DMA-events, a public-benefit entity that commissions murals. “It’s rare to find an artist who wants to paint a sign, which is essentially what ‘commissioned’ art is, so expect a smooth relationship if you work with their muse.”
Jose Di Gregorio, a Sacramento-based artist who has participated the past three years, is one such muralist who is highly sought-after for his personal brand and says “maintaining a sense of autonomy with my aesthetics and the ability to do so” is what he looks for in a mural gig.
“I often have to remind [a business owner] that if they’re approaching me about a project, they’re aware that I do have a brand and that my aesthetics are a part of why they’re approaching me. I try to maintain leverage with that,” he says, adding that he’ll do a rough mock-up of a project for a client once a contract has been signed but clarifying that the final product often looks very different.
3. Sign a contract
Having a contract in place that sets a clear timeline for repainting the building is perhaps the most critical aspect of the relationship. A business owner may sell the building, it may fall into disrepair after a number of years or a natural disaster could warrant covering up the artwork, but because of legal copyright protections that individually created art has in this country, unless an agreement is in place there’s a chance that there could be a misunderstanding in the future.
“It’s all about having an ongoing conversation between the artist and the business owner and setting parameters upfront,” Di Gregorio advises.
4. Prep the site
The last step is prepping the space for the creation. Preparing the surface for the artwork can vary from simply pressure-washing to a full repaint, and some artists prefer to do the prep themselves. In any case, a business owner will want to ensure an investment in the arts lasts a long time; paint does fail if not applied with deliberate care, so taking the time to have a discussion about the canvas it will live on is crucial.
“More often than not, I’m going to show up and have to buff a wall and prime [before installing a mural], so I’ll let my budget reflect that,” Di Gregorio says, adding that if a wall is prepped and ready for him when he arrives, the overall price might be lower.
Hosting a piece of public art is a rewarding experience from a financial perspective to a business or property owner, but also from being the one creating a new place, a unique landmark and a potential cultural icon that defines the environment around it. Partnering with creatives in the visual arts is one way to tap into Sacramento’s thriving arts scene.
“Fortunately, artists do have a little more leverage than they once did with regards to their aesthetics being incorporated into the desires of a property owner,” Di Gregoria says. “One of the parties is an artist and the other isn’t, and obviously, it makes perfect sense for the artist to be provided creative freedom. You let an electrician or plumber do their job without looking over their shoulder, and you should do the same for an artist.”