Thursday, December 19, 2013

Signage vs. Art, Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts about classifying images as "signage" or "art". 

Parts one and two, three, and four are here:

This time up we have a story from‘advertising’-rules-minneapolis-council-member-gary-schiff-wants-loos

In Saint Paul, Minnesotta, there is a movement to change the zoning ordinance to allow murals which display products associated with a business.  The linked article has numerous examples of murals that were painted over because they depicted products related to businesses.

From the article:

Council Member Gary Schiff wants to change the definition of an outdoor mural in the zoning code to allow the display of products that are related to the business inside the building.“You are not allowed to show any products that you sell in your mural, or your mural is deemed advertising,” said Schiff, “It’s really gotten silly, and the enforcement and destruction of murals has got to stop.”

The story also features a 15 year old mural on the side of a Whole Foods store which features fruits and vegetables, which are sold by Whole Foods.

More from the article:

The zoning inspectors in St. Paul try to find a way to allow murals to stay as painted if possible.
“We consider them artwork if we can,” said Wendy Lane, who is the city’s zoning manager. This approach, though,  doesn’t allow anything you want to paint, she explained.  If a mural pictures a brand name or a business name, it is considered advertising and falls under the rules for wall signs.

In a 2007 Central Corridor Development Strategy report (PDF), St. Paul even goes so far as to encourage eliminating “blank walls” and suggests murals or other artwork “to enliven the street and improve visual interest.”

This give me hope that there are more communities out there that are looking for reasonable mural ordinances.

Whole Foods mural in St. Paul, Minnesota features products sold in the store. photo by Karen Boros

Signage vs. Art, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about classifying images as "signage" or "art". I should clarify that I in fact think ALL signage is art. But this specific topic is about the legal distinctions between sign and mural, or sign and sculpture in regards to public ordinances.

Parts one and two and three are here:

Next up is a November 2013 article from

Chagrin Falls Valley Art Center was in the process of creating a mural when they were issued a cease and deists letter from village Chief Administrative Officer. The mural was interpreted as a sign. From the article:

The problem is that we’re not within the lines,” she laughed. “There are no lines [requirements] in the village ordinances for a mural. There are requirements for a sign and requirements for decorating your building.” There’s nothing for a mural.
“Either it’s a sign and it must meet certain requirements, or it’s a decoration on your building and must meet another set of requirements. Ours is neither.”

“So we had to go before council,” and since they had to rule it was one or the other, “they decided that it’s a sign,” she explained.

This is rather curious. This quote implies it was the LACK of a mural definition is what forced this work into one of two existing categories, decoration or sign. However, the article continues:

“Then they said it’s too big and that it sends a message because we’re an art gallery. They said if we had painted garden tools on the side of our building, that wouldn’t be so bad because we don’t sell garden tools,” she recalled.

So ultimately, it was judged to be a sign because it promoted the services or products provided by the business.

The mural in question:

Mural of art judged to be a sign by the village of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Painting garden tools would have been ok. As long as they didn't decide to try to sell paintings containing garden tools?

Mr. McGregor wielding a garden tool.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Signage Vs Art, Part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts about classifying images as "signage" or "art". I should clarify that I in fact think ALL signage is art. But this specific topic is about the legal distinctions between sign and mural, or sign and sculpture in regards to public ordinances.

Parts one and two are here:

Here is an interesting 2010 story from the Washington Post about an art conflict in Arlington Virginia:

The owner of dog boarding facility called "Wag More Dogs" paid $4000 to have a mural containing images of dogs playing painted on the side of her building. The side of the building where the mural was painted happens to face a dog park. The dogs also happened to be very similar to the dogs that are contained in her logo.

From the story:

When county zoning administrator Melinda Artman saw the artwork, she said it violated the county's sign rules, which stipulate signs may take up no more than 60 square feet. Kim said she was given two options: cover up the frolicking dogs or add "Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area" above the mural in four-foot high letters. A third option: leave the mural as is and face fines.

So... the mural was interpreted as a sign, and therefore was subject to the signage ordinance.

Lets not ignore the fact here that the zoning administrator (or someone in the government) came up with a creative idea! Adding text focusing the mural on the dog park was certainly a clever suggestion. I'll desist from adding my opinion as to the merit of that suggestion.

In any case, the situation continued to deteriorate. The article continues:

Last week, the Institute of Justice entered the fray, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the zoning administrator and the county arguing that Kim has been denied her Constitutional right to freedom of speech.

And this:

Houghton commissioned the mural for $4,000 in 2010, and acknowledged in court papers that it “incorporates some of the cartoon dogs in Wag More Dogs’ logo.” Her federal lawsuit seeking to keep the mural uncovered also acknowledged that the mural was intended “to create good will with the people who frequented the dog park” behind the store, “many of whom were potential Wag More Dogs customers.”

My goal in the writing of these posts is to explore both conflicts and success stories, in order to help craft the best possible policy for small towns, and to avoid disasters like this. I am currently involved in helping to develop a public art policy for the town of Ashland, Virginia.

Again from the story:

So, does the fact that Kim was hoping it would do what a sign does - inform and attract customers - make it a sign? No, she says. "When you get right down to it, what my intentions were don't make it a sign or not. . . . This is what I tell people who think it's a sign: Stand in front of the mural. If you know nothing about my business, does it tell you anything about my business? It's simply dogs playing on a wall.

I think she is dead on here. Policy can not be crafted on intention. Nor (like the Richmond Camera case) can it be crafted on the character of the artist. To say "well, you MEANT for it to be a sign, therefore it is a sign" is absurd. Also, to say "Well, it was a student art project, so it is art", is equally absurd.

Here is a photo of the art in question. Image from the Washington Post:

Mural on side of dog boarding facility. The mural faces a public dog park. Photo from Washington Post.
And here folks, is the follow up to the story from a September 2012 Washington Post article. The owner lost her legal battle, and was forced to paint over the mural.

From the Washing Post:

The judge concluded that Houghton “cannot reasonably assert that the dog mural is anything other than a business sign, erected as part of a business strategy to advertise and promote the Wag More Dogs brand.” Brinkema said allowing more signs like Wag More Dogs could create ”a virtual cacophony of competing commercial signs” that would harm traffic and aesthetics. Arlington’s ordinance “aims to avoid such a result — and rightly so,” the judge ruled.

I really don't know what is the intent of Arlington's ordinance, as I haven't read it. The real question is, what do YOU want from an ordinance in your town, and is the language crafted in such a way as to achieve those goals? As for me, I certainly want to avoid THIS from happening:

Owner of Wag More Dogs painting over $4000 mural which she commissioned. Photo from Washington Post.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Signage Vs. Art Part 2

Back in June of 2012, I created a blog post called Signage Vs. Art, exploring the boundaries and conflicts between fine art murals and signage. Here is the original post:

I am on the Ashland Main Street Design Committee in Ashland, Virginia, and we are in the midst of establishing a public art policy. To that end, I will be exploring this "art vs sign" issue in more depth.

Here is a great example of a small town, Charlottesville, VA that faced precisely this issue in 2010

A group of students created a mural depicting cameras on the side of a camera shop. The city threatened a fine of $5000 if Richmond Camera did not take the mural down.

While community response has been positive, says Martin, the city was less than pleased with the unexpected artistic addition. According to city spokesperson Ric Barrick, that's because the store already had four signs– two more than is allowed on an entrance corridor– and did not seek permission from the planning commission before painting the mural.

So... the fine was threatened because the mural was interpreted as a sign.

It seems that the city reversed its decision:

What I find curious is the reason the decision was reversed. From the NBC29 story:

Today the city says when they made that first decision, they didn't realize that the camera mural was an art project.  Charlottesville spokesperson Ric Barrick stated they weren't aware it was an art project until they saw the reports on TV.
So... they reversed their decision because they found out it was a school art project? Does the fact that it was done by students, rather than a hired professional, change the fact that is is a depiction of cameras on the side of a camera shop?

Sign or Mural?