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Murals: what's next

The Murals of Minnesota project is an asset to Wadena, according to city council members. It's an asset, however, whose ambiguous ownership has raised questions about future art displays.

The city doesn't have any guidelines specifically geared toward art, and is charging planning and zoning with the task of either modifying the sign ordinance or recommending the creation of an arts board or some other body to deal with public art.

Planning and Zoning Director Byron Larson showed council members a draft of possible changes to the sign ordinance, which includes a section that deals with his two major concerns -- ownership and maintenance.

The new section applies to murals, pictures or other works of art, which do not contain advertising, that exceed 16 square feet in area for each article or grouping. The application for the artwork to be approved by the city would have to include the name of the property owner and the owner of the artwork who would be responsible for its care and maintenance.

"This is the part that I've been striving for since day one," Larson said. "Who owns that mural, who's going to fix them."

Councilman Don Niles said if the city is going to change the sign ordinance it should look at the whole document. There is a draft ordinance on the city Web site that hasn't been adopted but is sort of a "quasi-official policy" for signs, he said. The city should take some time, though, to look at the ordinance, he said. It doesn't need to be in a hurry because city ordinance already allows the city to abate a sign painted onto a building that's not being kept up.

"Even if we adopt this now, we have the question of retroactively applying it," he said. "And with this being artwork I think our city attorney has mentioned when you regulate art all of a sudden you're bumping into the First Amendment."

The city needs to be careful about what it adopts, Niles said.

Councilwoman Kay Browne also mentioned Murals of Minnesota project organizer Dave Evert's objection to classifying the murals under the sign ordinance.

"That is one point that he made is that murals are not signs," Browne said referring to an e-mail Evert sent to City Administrator Brad Swenson in response to Swenson's invitation to the mural discussion.

"On behalf of the artists, I must say attempting to categorize their creations with commercial signage is degrading and highly offensive," Evert wrote.

Larson said the sign ordinance was used because of a lack of knowing how else to classify the murals.

"It kind of fits there because it's something that hangs on a wall," Larson said.

In reference to Niles' concerns about the First Amendment, Larson said the city also has to be really careful about freedom of speech with its sign ordinance. Many large cities have an art advisory board like Wadena has a library board and a park board, he said.

Mayor Wayne Wolden said it would be reasonable to have an art board review these issues.

The planning commission deals with land use and zoning, Larson said.

"The artwork, yeah the location kind of falls into there, but I think it falls under a bigger realm of things also," he added.

Browne said if Larson and the planning commission came back and said they think an art board should work on the issue, that would be fine.

"It's what you think is best," she said.

Wolden also liked the idea of an art board saying if there was a grass roots community movement to form an art board it could make recommendations for the city's approval.

An art board could both promote and regulate public arts displays, Larson said.

Councilman Toby Pierce encouraged Larson to come up with something innovative.

Questions over the erection of the final mural in the Murals of Minnesota project at Wadena Outfitters opened up the subject of mural ownership and maintenance at July's council meeting. The council didn't focus its concern with the location of that particular mural, but wanted city officials to research the contracts with owners the Murals of Minnesota project organizers were supposed to give to the city. Following the meeting, Evert e-mailed Wolden and told him the property owners refused to sign contracts saying it was not the city's business to tell them how to paint their buildings.

When the murals were discussed at July's meeting, the council asked Swenson to make sure Evert was invited to this month's discussion.

Evert replied to Swenson's e-mail invitation that he was attending a tourism discussion in White Earth that day and did not believe he would be back in time. He also said he was not interested in participating publicly in the discussion he read about in the newspaper.

"Doing so would not be in the best interest of the council or the community," Evert wrote.

He encouraged the council to focus on promoting the murals and using them as a tourism tool.

"I hope the council will grasp this opportunity to encourage visitors and spending within our city and forget the idea of trying to control something that is already finished," Evert wrote.