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People checking in for the December mural meeting at Burton Barr Central Library.
People checking in for the December mural meeting at Burton Barr Central Library.
Lynn Trimble

City of Phoenix Looks for Feedback on Public Art After Willo Mural Controversy

The city of Phoenix is working on best practices for murals in the aftermath of controversy surrounding murals painted last year in the Willo neighborhood. Members of the public can weigh in with the city through Thursday, February 28, which means now is the time share your thoughts with city officials.

New murals started popping up in and around downtown Phoenix in May 2018 as part the Phoenix Mural Festival founded by Danielle Fouschée. She’s an assistant professor of visual communication design for ASU, who created the Phoenix Mural Project in 2017.

Artists painted more than 50 murals as part of the festival, which took place from May 6 to 8. The creatives were paired with homeowners and business owners who wanted murals. But not everyone appreciated the effort, and some people took their concerns to the city.

City officials heard from mural supporters and opponents, prompting them to announce a meeting with community members at Burton Barr Central Library on August 21, 2018. The meeting announcement read, in part:

"Concerns have been expressed regarding the murals and their impacts on historic neighborhoods. Some people would like to see these murals regulated or not permitted. You are invited to a meeting to let your opinions be known about the issue."

Bob Cannon, who heads the Willo Neighborhood Association, spoke that night – calling on the city to develop mural guidelines. Most people who spoke expressed support for the murals, and it’s clear the issue has garnered a lot of community interest.

Artist Hugo Medina was the first community member to speak during the December 2018 meeting.EXPAND
Artist Hugo Medina was the first community member to speak during the December 2018 meeting.
Lynn Trimble

Several city representatives, including historic preservation officer Michelle Dodds, offered important context during the gathering. Collectively, they summarized the city's current approach:

• The city doesn't regulate paint, with the exception of painted signs.
• If property owners give permission, painting isn't considered graffiti.
• Any regulation of murals would need to serve a clear governmental interest.
• You can't regulate something that's protected by free speech.
• Murals will not cause the loss of historic status.

More than 200 people attended that meeting, including 173 who signed in and 54 who made public comments. The city also received 55 emails and 10 letters from organizations, according to a December 14, 2018, email sent by city officials to those who had provided contact information.

The subject line for that email read: "Staff Recommendations on Mural Projects." It was written by three department heads – Alan Stephenson of planning and development, Spencer Self of neighborhood services, and Gail Browne, who has since retired from the office of arts and culture.

City staff reviewed mural information for 25 cities, according to that email. “The research shows that across the country there are many variations in how cities handle mural projects,” it reads, in part.

One of many murals painted in the Willo neighborhood during the Phoenix Mural Festival.
One of many murals painted in the Willo neighborhood during the Phoenix Mural Festival.
Lynn Trimble

They also looked for common themes in community feedback, and found that communication was a central issue. “Many of the issues raised through the public input received focus in communication,” they wrote.

Hence, communication is a central component of their one-page document recommending best practices for Phoenix mural projects. Here’s how they address it:

"Communication is key to a successful mural project. That communication includes a clear understanding between the artist and the property owner. It also includes outreach to the surrounding community that may be impacted by viewing the mural. Communication should include a meeting regarding the proposed mural and proper notification of that meeting."

The document also covers other topics, including written agreements between artists and property owners and wall preparation. Specifically, it suggests the use of coating to protect murals from graffiti.

The December email invited readers to submit feedback via odette.baker@phoenix.gov by January 6. Now, the deadline has been extended to Thursday, February 28.

At this point, the city has no plans to regulate murals, according to historic preservation officer Michelle Dodds. “We’re not setting up an ordinance or regulations,” she says.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen down the road. “Ultimately, it would be up to the city council if that’s something they wanted to do,” Dodds says. “We’re not there yet.”

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