Memphis City Council unanimously approved a resolution on Tuesday allowing the removal of any public art that could be considered offensive, further souring the relationship between the city and the non-profit art group Paint Memphis.
Paint Memphis has 133 murals across the city. Last week, crews with the Division of Public Works painted over seven of them, destroying work valued at $35,000 plus.
City officials said that move resulted from miscommunication. None of those murals were among the six others that stimulated the controversy that led to the 10-0 vote in favor of the resolution presented by Council Chairman Berlin Boyd. Those murals are located at Lamar Ave. and South Willett, a predominately African-American neighborhood in South Memphis.
“If it’s public, then I think it should be inclusive instead of offensive,” Boyd said to Paint Memphis leader Karen Golightly during a presentation in committee Tuesday afternoon.
At Mayor Jim Strickland’s request, Golightly attempted to explain the aesthetics and the purpose behind the art. Her presentation was interrupted and shut down by Boyd, who objected to language he deemed “insulting” to him and the council.
“We’re going to see how we can get out of a contract with you as well,” said Boyd
Some of the murals featured skulls and Golightly tried to put their use in context. While she connected them to Halloween and its Christian roots, council members and constituents dubbed them as “satanic.”
“Good day, ma’am. You’re done, have a seat,” Boyd said, banging his gavel and bringing Golightly’s presentation to a halt.
Public Works Director Robert Knecht said his division has an agreement with Paint Memphis, allowing them to paint in certain public sectors. As part of the agreement, the division has the right to remove anything questionable.
“Unfortunately, the council may not know the federal law that protects these artists,” Golightly said, citing the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
“The artists have to have an agreement or give permission to have their work buffed and some of the settlements have been like $6.7 million in which 21 artists have been represented,” Golightly said.
Acknowledging the argument about censoring art versus free speech, Councilman Frank Colvett Jr. joined those voting in favor of the Boyd resolution, saying the murals in question went above and beyond offensive.
Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen said community leaders in the district she represents complained about the murals on multiple occasions.
“Would you put that painting up at Graceland?” The painting Swearengen referenced depicted Elvis Presley with a snake going through one eye and a nostril.
Golightly said she tried her best to reach out to the community, including active use of social media and putting up posters in hopes of organizing meetings about the murals.
During the meeting, council members also voiced concerns about what they termed a lack of black artists and suggested the possibility of a social-economic disconnect.
“Fifty-seven percent of our artists are white, the rest are people of color,” Golightly said.
Last year, the Memphis City Council created the Public Art Oversight Committee to account for the opinions of residents after the murals became an issue that led to fryed nerves.
“Our hands are not in this,” Councilman Martavius Jones said, seemingly trying to move the tense discussion in a constructive direction.
Jones proposed that City County Attorney Allan Wade draft a measure requiring City Council to approve all projects with a value of more than $250,000.
“If we’re going to get blamed for it, we need to be in the kitchen figuring out what ingredients went into it,” he said.
Jones and Councilman Worth Morgan did not vote on the measure. Kemp Conrad was absent.