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Statement RE: ACLU Lawsuit vs. City of New Orleans over Anti-Trump Mural (Mural Reform in New Orleans)
Today the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court on my behalf against the City of New Orleans over the City’s unconstitutional mural ordinance. Here’s how it went down.
My friend Cashy-D painted this mural at my warehouse:
There isn’t much to it but Cashy-D saw it as a slight act of resistance. Why is it acceptable for the President of the United States to grab women by their genitals? I posted a pic of the mural and soon thereafter the City of New Orleans ordered me to take it down. (You might think that an artist can paint on his or her own property without government permission….. and you would be wrong.)
Or as the City delicately put it in their Violation Notice, “The penalty for failure to comply is a maximum fine or jail time for each and every day the violation continues…” Laissez les bons temps rouler indeed.
Keep in mind that we aren’t talking about painting art on public property and we aren’t talking about illegal tagging on private property. This is the City of New Orleans threatening jail time over a citizen painting art on his or her own property.
So what does it take to legally obtain a mural permit? Who knows. The process is so complex, so onerous, and so arbitrary as to be a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. A mural permit requires multiple pages of applications, a sketch of the proposed art, a minimum $500 fee, and a 3-6 month wait while EIGHT different agencies, staffs, and panels weigh in on whether the art will be allowed. They can't articulate the standards being applied and at the end of the process you may or may not get your permit. There isn’t even agreement within City Hall over which city law should be applied. I was told, “We need to figure it out and we will get back to you.” They didn’t.
I’m not sure what led to this mess but I suspect it was honorable people with good intentions doing the best they can in an imperfect world. But they got it wrong and it is time to make it right.
Never missing an opportunity to stir the pot, Cashy D then painted this.
And for good measure, this.
And the kick ass Jules Muck painted this.
The City of New Orleans cited me for those as well (even after I explained that the Muck Bunnies were just doing a special kind of bunny hug that a mommy bunny and daddy bunny do when they love each other very, very much.)
Maybe you can see where this is going.
The ACLU reached out and asked if I would like their assistance. Well, yes, I would. Like Michael Dukakis on his tank I am a proud, card-carrying member of the ACLU. We filed a few public records requests and, HUGE surprise here….the City of New Orleans selectively enforces the mural ordinance!
For example, suppose your mural does not depict cartoon breasts, is not critical of President Trump, and also you are Yoko Ono. No permit required!
It is true. Mad respect to Ms. Yoko Ono but her lovely “HAVE YOU SEEN THE HORIZON LATELY?” (which was painted on the exterior of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as part of the Prospect 4 Exhibition) still does not have a mural permit.* Not surprisingly, the Ogden Museum was never cited for a zoning violation. I’m sure Ms. Ono and the Ogden were doing as instructed but there shouldn't be one set of rules for them and another for you or me or Cashy-D.
The City also gives a pass to muralists who didn't release Plastic Ono Band (1972). For example, they give a pass to themselves.
Here’s a super cool mural painted this past Fall by Ryan Christenson on a City-owned fire house at 801 Girod St.
Nice, right? But did the City of New Orleans follow its own procedure? (Hint: No, they didn’t.)**
The way the City decides whom to give a permit and whom to cite for a violation is arbitrary and inconsistent. It is also just plain wrong.
If an artist wants to create a work of art on her own building she shouldn’t have to submit a sketch the City and have a bunch of men on the Architectural Review Committee of the Historic District Landmarks Commission give her feedback on whether they think her art is aesthetically pleasing. Just let her create.
The Arts Council of New Orleans is an important non-profit organization. They project images on buildings. They are the custodian of city-owned art. They attend meetings. Clearly they do a lot of great work. But they shouldn’t be weighing in at all on whether an artist should be issued a permit to create art on her own property. This is to you Arts Council: Whether it is just for your technical expertise (as you told me) or for your aesthetic judgment (as the City told me) you shouldn't be involved. Anything that adds another layer of process and bureaucracy stands in the way of an artist creating his work. Shouldn't you want to make it easier for artists to create? When the City asks you to be a part of this convoluted process politely tell them, “No,” and get out of the way.***
As you might be able to tell from the sentence above, I am not particularly tied into the art scene. And I am certainly not an artist. But I support artists and their first amendment right to freedom of expression. It isn't a pose. It’s me.
I love street art because it is so democratic. You don't need to drop thousands of dollars in a gallery. All you have to do is look up. I don’t have to agree with a political message to respect the art and occasionally there is street art I dislike. But so what? Vibrant diverse art makes for vibrant diverse communities. Occasionally being confronted with something we find distasteful is preferable to living in a city where bureaucrats and busybodies decide what we see.
From what I understand, even within City Hall there is some acknowledgement that the existing process needs to be reformed. I hope so. I would love for this to be an opportunity for the current and incoming mayoral administration to create an ordinance that is more than just barely constitutional. Should that be our goal? Barely constitutional? Barely Legal? We can do better. New Orleans is a City that celebrates difference and our mural ordinance should reflect this. This is an opportunity for the City of New Orleans to be a progressive leader in how we treat artists. Let’s revise our mural ordinance so that it is a progressive model for other cities.
So here is the call to action….
If you are a New Orleanian (or a lover of New Orleans) who supports the notion that vibrant diverse art makes for vibrant diverse neighborhoods and that Art By Committee is an awful idea I respectfully ask that you consider signing this Change.org petition for Mural Reform in New Orleans.
And follow Mural Reform Nola on Facebook.
The Complaint filed in Federal Court
The Change.org petition for Mural Reform in New Orleans
Neal Morris on Instagram
Neal Morris on Twitter
Cashy-D on Instagram
Any images in this post may be used freely by anyone. All photos by © Neal Morris
* They have a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Landmarks Commission but that is just one of many, many required steps in the process. The Certificate of Appropriateness was issued after the mural was already being painted.
**The Historic District Landmarks Commission voted to deny the mural because it felt the mural did not, “enhance the design quality and character of the surrounding community.” They also noted that, “due to the zoning district of the station, a private owner would not be allowed to add a mural and the City should follow its own rules.” But the City Planning commission overruled the HDLC. Then in response to a Public Records Request the City said there was no record of a permit being issued. They really need to get their act together.
***At 3:13 p.m. on 3-13-18 the staff of the HDLC informed me that the “informal” practice of soliciting input from the Arts Council was discontinued after my inquiry into the practice in November of last year. This is progress!
THANKS FOR ASKING ....
JUST WHAT ARE WE REGISTERING FOR?
DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ASK
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