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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 4 years ago

Art Wars: a people's history of the “Going Vertical” mural controversy

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by: John Ewing

- Van Jazmin is a designer with a passion for leadership, community and transformation. He has collaborated on projects with Cirque du Soleil, Tervis Tumbler, TEDx, and Ringling College Center for Applied Creativity and Innovation. His contributions to Sarasota's creativity include graphic facilitation with Your Creative Ideas and launching Clothesline Print & Design, an artist-run screen printing company.

Once hailed as "Circus City, USA", Sarasota, Fla. has a colorful history, rich with the stories of pioneers, entrepreneurs, architects, and iconic families. Its landscape has always been in flux. Today, the legacy continues with the transformation of one of the city's districts into an unexpected hub for urban art.

    Sarasota as seen by French street artists. (Source: IKano Grafik)

Known as the Burns Square historic district, this diverse area has received both good and bad publicity due to a small yet vehement controversy over murals. Although meant to be temporary, some these murals have seen an early demise, while others are being protected as sacred works of art. The question is raised: Who gets to decide what art stays and what goes?

The Sarasota Chalk Festival began its "Going Vertical" program in 2011, in which local, national and international artists are invited to paint on designated walls downtown. During the first year, the local press raved about a mural by Berlin-based artist MTO. This mural was quickly obliterated as a result of pressure from unnamed locals, who interpreted the hand mural as a gang symbol. The property owner had the mural painted over. This sparked a fiery discussion about the role of property owners and the censorship of mural art. It was a testament to the power of art to start a citywide conversation.

In 2012, the Chalk Festival saw another successful season with more acts than ever. With free admission and the open-air venue, the festival offered a full stage show, aerialist acts, a chalking chimpanzee and hundreds of well-respected artists. For 10 days the neighborhood saw floods of new people visiting the city. Business boomed for retail shops and restaurants. New murals sprung up by Entes y PesimoWes RoosSTPNever 2501 and Pixel Pancho to name a few. For artists and art-lovers, this may have been the most exciting week of the year.

Not long after the festival ended, a negative backlash from several business owners in Burns Square reached the press. As it turns out, not everyone appreciated the raw and youthful flavor of the new mural art. These upset business owners took their grievances to city hall and the media directly, without contacting anyone in the Chalk Festival organization. As a result, a public meeting was held in response to the opposition, but it was not well-publicized. It seemed that only the opposing party was invited to the meeting. Even with few people in attendance, the room was loud. There was snickering, shouting, booing and applause. Their diatribe contained few facts, but many opinions.The speakers not only made false assumptions, they omitted important contextual information. For instance, the opposition referred to the mural artists as "kids" (when in reality, they are professionals with museum exhibitions who travel the world by invitation) and the murals as "graffiti" (although it was all done with permission from the property owners). There was never any mention of the money and time spent on these murals, nor did anyone give reference or credit to the artists' names or nationalities. The hand-carved elephants created over five months by Kumpa Tawornprom were called "props," and the chalk art that remained on the streets was called "a mess." On the flipside, Street Art News, an international art blog, published a celebratory article for one of the murals.

Regardless of the worldwide recognition and respect held for these artists, the critics expressed fear that their art made Burns Square look like a "bad neighborhood." According to the opposition, it was not the run-down gas station itself that made the neighborhood look "ghetto," it was the murals depicting Latino people that were to blame. Critics also claimed that the murals devalued the properties. Meanwhile, the same artists whose murals were attacked in the meeting received a private commission to paint murals inside a top-dollar condominium on Palm Avenue.

A week after the theatrical city hall meeting, nine of the colorful murals were whitewashed. Upon the sight of the murals being painted over, Sarasota's citizens sent comments of outrage and disappointment. This lead to a trend of comments in the tone of "Sarasota sucks and I can't wait to move away!"---adding to the disillusionment of many youth, which is what the majority of Sarasota's cultural leaders are trying to prevent. In addition, tourists were shocked to find the murals missing, especially after traveling many miles in hopes to see them in person.

In the end, who gained and who lost? Was the destruction of the murals valid? Or was it really about personal taste and personal grudges?

Consider that many of the negative comments were directed at Artistic Director and Event Chair Denise Kowal more than the festival itself. It’s a typical case: Anyone who succeeds or stands up for something is bound to have haters. Aside from the festival, Kowal’s accomplishments include 30 years worth of of street improvements and beautification projects for the city. As president of the Burns Square Property Owners Association, she was major contributor to the neighborhood's master plan.

Kowal, who received training from urban planner Andrés Duany, says she wants the area to function like a real downtown. ““The murals are a no-brainer to draw tourism,” says Kowal, “but these critics are only thinking about themselves, not about a healthy city.”

In response to the controversy, the Sarasota Chalk Festival is surveying and seeking input and will likely return in 2013. Another sign of hope for the festival's supporters is a new MTO mural depicting Denise Kowal in a boxing match. The mural is a reminder of the struggle Kowal and her family endures each year to keep the festival going strong. In the face of many obstacles, she continues to organize the festival as a volunteer. It is not out of monetary gain, but out of her love and belief in the importance of the arts and community. In the end, we like to think that love will conquer hate. Either way, Sarasota's "Art Wars" will go down in history.

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