At their regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, Bloomington arts commissioners discussed the future of the People’s Park mural.
Three weeks ago, on the day of Juneteenth (June 19)—a celebration marking the emancipation of slaves in the U.S.—the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” were painted over the top of the existing mural. The Bloomington Arts Commission (BAC) had commissioned artist Eva Allen to paint it in 2017.
The addition to the mural came in the context of of nationwide and local demonstrations, prompted by Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, along with other recent police killings of Black men and women. Floyd was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, when the police officer pinned Floyd down with a knee-on-neck hold.
On Wednesday, Bloomington’s assistant director for the arts, Sean Starowitz, described the layering of the phrase over the top of the existing mural as a “well-intentioned addition the mural, in terms of the color choice and how it was laid out.”
The Wednesday meeting took place in the context of anti-racism demonstrations that took place on each of the previous days, prompted by recent local incidents.
He told BAC members that “repairs” would not be done to the mural, and it will not be “buffed”—which is the technical term for painting over a mural to make the wall blank again. That’s due in part to the fact that the contract with Allen—who painted the “Bloomington” mural—expires at the end of August.
After that, the future of the wall is uncertain, because the mural is part of a public-private partnership that includes the owners of the Bicycle Garage, whose wall is the canvas for the mural.
Right now, it looks like the maximum time the current state of the wall would persist involves a scenario where the owners don’t paint it over, and the BAC administers a public process for hiring an artist who’ll conduct community engagement— something that might take around six months.
BAC member Karen Hallett-Rupp said she didn’t want the group to move too quickly to replace the mural.
Some members of the Black community, like Indiana University history professor Amrita Myers, have called for the mural to be preserved as it now stands, a two-layered depiction of the Black struggle.
Starowitz told BAC members that that he’s talked with the bike shop’s owners, Bob and Anne Holahan, and reported that they’re comfortable with the idea of pursuing a new mural.
The cyclical nature of the wall as a space for changing murals was was part of Starowtiz’s summary on Wednesday of the history of art on the Bicycle Garage’s wall. In the mid-2000s, Rhino’s Youth Center’s youth mural arts program was responsible for some murals that were displayed along the wall on 4-foot-by-8-foot panels. They’re visible in the aerial photo archives that are a part of Monroe County’s online GIS property lookup system.
Replacing the mural that’s there now is consistent with the idea that the wall has historically seen impermanent murals on the wall, Starowitz said. He described it as a very high-demand visual space, he said.
On Wednesday, BAC members gave Starowitz the nod to continue more detailed conversations with the Holahans, Black Lives Matter B-town, Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, and First Nations Educational & Cultural Center, about the kinds of themes that will be described in the open call for artists.
Even though the process will need to be a public, because of legal requirements, the call can be very explicit about the opportunity for underrepresented artists and the kind of themes the mural is hoped to include, Starowitz said.
Starowitz wants the budget to include enough to pay the artist to be involved in community meetings, so that it could be more of “community-designed mural, rather than leaving it up to an artist to interpret what the community wants,” he said.
About the “Bloomington” mural that Allen had created, Starowitz said a variety of community-based approaches were used. As a result of community outreach, the Transgender Pride Flag and the Pride Flag were added. Also incorporated into the mural was the Second Baptist Church, which was designed by Black architect Samuel Plato. But Starowitz said it was obviously a mural that celebrated a diverse city “through kind of a white lens and through whiteness.”
BAC member Rachel Glago reported to her colleagues at Wednesdays meeting that she’d attended the demonstrations that were held the previous couple of days, and spoken with some of the organizers about the future of the mural.
Glago told the organizers she was interested in seeing an artist of color be selected to design the next mural. Glago reported that the organizers were able to name three or four artists “right off the bat” that they would like to see do that mural.
Glago thinks it’s important to give the Black community a chance “to reclaim that space.”
Jada Bee, who’s a board member of Democracy for Monroe County and a member of BLM B-town’s core council, told The Square Beacon previously, she thinks the mural should be left in its current condition. But she added: “Whatever happens, it needs to be a Black artist calling the shots.”
“It should be sanctified as a Black art space. The artist should be given free rein in the creative process and the city should not be able to censor it. Any kind of change should from a Black artist working with the Black community,” Jada Bee said.
At Wednesday’s BAC meeting, Starowitz said, “We are not in the business of censorship.” He said what he tries to do as a staffer is represent the artist in these public-private partnerships. But by including the property owners from the beginning of the process, it’s less likely that the BAC will go down a path that leads to a proposal the property owners reject. And it’s the property owners who have the ultimate say, Starowitz said.
Among the concerns that Starowitz described is the possibility that the new mural could be vandalized. Another concern is that if the mural memorializes the history of People’s Park, which includes the Black Market and its 1968 firebombing, it could become a target for white supremacist groups.
BAC member Elliot Joseph Reichert said at Wednesday’s meeting, he was interested is seeing some kind of tangible memorializing of the park’s history.
Starowitz said that it’s important to remember that the community will put a lot of weight on the role and responsibility of any public art that’s created in People’s Park. There’ll be an expectation that it will help bring “closure and healing” to the space.
BAC member Essence London said she supported the idea of involving the community in the next mural so that it goes towards a community healing effort.
An example of the kind of approach that Starowitz wants to avoid is the way Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser recently renamed a street near the White House “Black Lives Matter” and painted that phrase on the street in letters as tall as the roadway is wide. It drew criticism from some quarters—for renaming the street without also having a conversation about defunding the police and other community concerns.
“I don’t want us to look like we are doing political lip service without actually addressing other equity issues in our community,” Starowitz said.
Historical Images of People’s Park from Monroe County GIS