Being for Art in Ann Arbor: My Challenge to the City

Opinion piece by Jordan Kifer

This past election, Ann Arbor citizens voted down Proposal B, which according to annarbor.com, would have levied a 0.1-mill tax to pay for public art the next four years, raising an estimated $459,273 in the first year and would have helped to pay for “new public murals, sculptures and temporary installations in public places, and possibly even events like FestiFools, the city’s annual parade of foolish puppets on Main Street.”

Politics aside, the failure of Proposal B in a city that prides itself on being arts-friendly has made me reexamine what it means to “B for Art” in Ann Arbor. How truly open-minded are we when it comes to public art? How willing are we to redefine not only what is considered public art but also what should be legal? Beyond the large-scale art installations costing upwards of $750,000,how much does the city of Ann Arbor actually embrace public art that is created outside the constraints of city decision-making channels? The amount of murals and graffiti stencils as well as chalk art found in the city in my opinion does not accurately represent the level of creativity, talent and artistry that the people of Ann Arbor have to offer. Due to the illegality of street art, which too often falls under the negatively associated label of graffiti, there is a wealth of public art that is not being brought forth for others to appreciate, and to be both inspired and offended by.

For example, in 2008 when a business owner noticed some “charming” graffiti on the wall of his building in Ypsilanti, the city was clear that it must be taken down – despite the owner’s insistence that he would like to keep the art where it was. According to the city ordinance, “It is the duty of both the owner of the property to which the graffiti has been applied, and any person who may be in possession or has the right to possess such property, to at all times keep such property clear of graffiti.”

Being “for art” goes beyond supporting museums and formal exhibitions. Being for art means having the consideration and care to differentiate between vandalism and a work of art. An individual who tags a business with spray paint to me, is a criminal; they have negatively impacted their community and caused property damage. To me, these acts of vandalism are not art and in my experience with street artists, those who vandalize are not respected in that world. With that in mind, why is another individual who, even with permission of a building owner, not permitted to create a mural or other work of public art?   Per my understanding of the legal jargon below, text taken directly from the ordinance in Ann Arbor, even if a building owner wanted to permit an artist to create a mural or stencil or other related work of public art on their space, they would be in violation of this ordinance.

“No person who owns or otherwise controls or manages any property shall permit or allow any graffiti to be or remain on any surface or structure on the property beyond the time indicated in a notice, which shall be no less than seven (7) calendar days after the notice is posted on the property or delivered to the property owner and no less than nine (9) calendar days if the notice is mailed. If removal of the graffiti by the date set in the notice is not possible due to weather or other reasonable cause, then on or before the date set in the notice the person to whom the notice is issued or his or her agent shall contact the City as indicated in the notice to request an extension. Removal of graffiti may be by means of actual physical removal or covering the graffiti over with paint or other similar substance applied to the surface or structure. A violation of this subsection is not a civil infraction or a misdemeanor. (4)”

To me, this is illogical, restrictive and is not how Ann Arbor should “B for Art.” Independent of Proposal B’s outcome, the city of Ann Arbor still has changes to make if it wants to continue priding itself on being a champion for the arts.

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If you are interested in the future of public art legislation in Ann Arbor or Detroit, join Creative Rights on November 30th or December 1st to discuss Air Rights and Public Art. Click the link to join our facebook event and find more details.