Atlanta Officials Propose Regulating “Public Art” on Private Property

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 21, 2014

A Living Walls mural by the artist Hyuro that was at the center of a controversy in fall 2012 (photo by vandalog, via Flickr)

A Living Walls mural by the artist Hyuro that was at the center of a controversy in fall 2012 (photo by vandalog, via Flickr)

City Councilmembers in Atlanta are proposing an ordinance that would require anyone wishing to display “public art” on their private property to obtain a labyrinthine string of permits and approvals, Creative Loafing has reported. The legislation put forth by 12 councilmembers aims to put in place “a permitting process providing for clear guidelines in distinguishing commercial speech from public art, describing required public input, and reviewing the effect on traffic safety,” because displays of public art “can become excessive.” It’s unclear how popular the measure is or what it requires to become law, but thus far, one Neighborhood Planning Unit has voted unanimously against it.

The legislation would update the Code of Ordinance of the City of Atlanta to include a section titled “Works of Art on Private Property,” and the approval process would be as follows: First, submit a permit application, which, in order to even proceed, would require three certifications from as many city offices; next, if those are granted, the application would go on the agenda for a Neighborhood Planning Unit meeting in the area where the art would be located; then, a councilmember would have to introduce “a personal paper in support of the installation of public art”; then, the application would have to be made into a written ordinance; and finally, “The City Council may approve the ordinance presenting the Application, with or without conditions or may vote to adverse the ordinance.”

The ordinance’s definition of “public art” is also troublingly broad:

Public art is for the purposes of this article defined as an expression of creative skill or imagination in a visual form, such as painting or sculpture which is intended to beautify or provide aesthetic influences to public areas on private property or areas on private property which are visible from the public right of way or other public spaces. Public art may be physically expressed as the creation of a structure or the depiction of visual expression located on the outside of a building on private property and which is visible from a City park, sidewalk, street or other right-of-way.

Creative Loafing offers more context on the effort: spearheaded by Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, it’s similar to legislation that she proposed last summer, in reaction to controversy over a Living Walls mural.

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  • Other than approaching the NPUs and MAYBE a broader definition of “public art,” I’m not sure how this is different from the current regulations governing public art in Atlanta. As I understand it, Living Walls has already been doing these other steps regarding approval, because that’s what they’ve been told by the City of Atlanta that they need to do. Yes, the definition of public art is problematic, but overall this could be a positive thing. Public art on private property is already regulated in Atlanta, it’s just that nobody understand the regulations. Now things will be much more clear. Or maybe I’m missing something?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      If you read the text of the proposed legislation, it adds a whole new section to the city ordinance that wasn’t there before. As I understand it, currently, to obtain a permit for real, actual public art, people need to get permission/certifications from three city departments. This is a much more drawn out and complicated process for any art that somehow qualifies as “public” on private property. This seems, from what I can tell, far more invasive than what’s currently in place.

      • Maybe this wasn’t the official regulation before, but Living Walls was already being told as early as 2012 that they needed the Office of Cultural Affairs, the Urban Design Commission, the Office of Traffic and Transportation and the City Council (as well as the local council member) to sign off on murals. Here’s a mural application that they submitted to City Council in 2013 that notes the OCA, the UDC and the OTT – That application doesn’t mention the specific local council person, but at least in 2013, LW was working with local Council members –

        So, other than the NPUs, this seems to just be codifying and making more clear the regulations that either already existed and were confusing or did not exist but were being insisted upon (at least in the case of Living Walls).

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Of course they have to work with local council members, but this seems much broader in its reach. Living Walls is a public art mural program; this ordinance contends that anyone who wants to put up visible art on their property needs to go through these steps. And, again, from what I can tell (I readily acknowledge that I’m not an expert), the addition of the NPUs and the wait time that comes with it as well as some of the other steps seems to add a fair amount to the process. If you look at the actual legislation linked above, it includes the text of the three steps/certifications now in place before the proposed changes. The difference in length and breadth is quite noticeable.

  • Grizzly59

    Can we get people to not put those obscene pink flamingos and gnomes on their lawns? I have always been deeply offended by them!

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