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Jersey City Censors a Public Artwork It Commissioned

Mr. AbiLLity's mural, as photographed two weeks ago (photo via @lifeisamother/Instagram)
Mr. AbiLLity’s mural, as photographed two weeks ago (photo via @lifeisamother/Instagram)

Jersey City officials have painted over a contentious artwork that the city’s public arts program commissioned, prompting calls to tighten what critics view as a highly ambiguous, if not essentially nonexistent, citywide public arts policy. Yesterday afternoon, artist Gary Wynans, who goes by Mr. AbiLLity, learned that workers had painted over his giant painting of a Monopoly game board at the heavily trafficked Newark Avenue Pedestrian Plaza. No warning had arrived from those running the Jersey City Mural Arts Program — the very department that had reached out to him in May after he posted his first design on Facebook.

The surprise paint job was not the first time City Hall has made its mark on Mr. AbiLLity’s board. The entire process was riddled by authorities’ demands that the artist edit his work, foreseeing possible controversy around the original image. Modeled on the popular board game, the pavement painting incorporated local street names and icons, but also reflected issues of gentrification, growing income disparities, and a developing city landscape. Areas known for low-income and affordable housing occupied playing squares near the start; pricier ones, on squares near the end. Other squares featured a police officer depicted as a pig; a mustachioed, bespectacled man beneath the words, “Gentrification Tax”; and an illustration of a local monument, which Mr. AbiLLity had labeled a “cool statue.” Brooke Hansson, who directs the mural program, had asked Mr. AbiLLity to alter the appearance of the policeman and find another word for “Gentrification.” He complied, turning the cop into a Simpsons-like character and settling instead on “Hipster Tax.” He also shifted the square for Martin Luther King Drive, as Hansson didn’t want the crime-ridden area in its original location, next to the box designating the jail.

? bye bye #jcmonopoly @mr_abillity #streetartjc #mural #jcmakeityours #streetart

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But complaints from locals still streamed in as Mr. AbiLLity worked. It turns out the “cool statue” is a memorial by Polish-American sculptor Andrzej Pitynski, dedicated to victims of the 1940 Katyń massacre. Mr. AbiLLity changed his original tag so it read, “Katyń Memorial.” He also claims that Hansson told him he had to add a square dedicated to real estate agency “Charles & Co.” because the company is a sponsor of the art program. The largest controversy, however, emerged over the jail square, which depicted a dark-skinned man behind bars. A number of locals, including Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, complained that the image supported racist stereotypes, although it was actually a self-portrait (Mr. AbiLLity is Italian and Puerto Rican). The artist added his tag, “ill,” to signify that the figure was him, but the message remained lost. City Hall officials painted the entire square orange, telling him that the program had received threats of funding cuts.

Mr. AbiLLity does not know why his entire mural received a fresh layer of green paint yesterday, but the situation reveals the city’s need for a proper system for handling its commissions and managing public reaction to them. Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) penned a letter calling on Mayor Steven Fulop to implement procedures to properly select public artworks and to review and respond to complaints in ways that do not breach First Amendment rights.

“Our concern is that the city responded to complaints immediately with censorship,” Jas Chana, NCAC’s communications director, told Hyperallergic. “There wasn’t a review process. No one was consulted. The city authorities basically took matters into their own hands and said, We’re going to paint it.

“It’s constitutionally problematic, but also, when it comes to public art — which is obviously going to provoke different responses in different people — satisfying every complaint is likely to leave every piece of art in shambles and also create a negative image of the city. This isn’t a venue for artists to express themselves. It’s an unworkable program.”

Foiled again!

A photo posted by Peter Quilla (@petequilla) on

A photo posted by AbiLLity (@mr_abillity) on

Just three years old, the mural program has repeatedly been criticized for its lack of transparency. According to Jersey City artist and School of Visual Arts professor Amy Wilson, most municipal mural programs have an open application process, with a highly regarded committee making decisions while considering community input. However, Jersey City’s remains an enigma.

“We have no application process,” Wilson told Hyperallergic. “Artists are chosen through some sort of mysterious process. It’s overseen and run by a single employee in the Department of Public Works who does not have an art background, and the neighborhood has zero say as to whether they want a mural or what that mural will be of — it simply shows up one day.

“As far as I can tell, there are no provisions for how long the mural will be displayed; what to do if the mural gets damaged or destroyed, or if a commercial entity wants to align their brand with it; and it’s unclear as to who owns the copyright to the work.” Wilson and a local blogger have filed an Open Public Records Act request to attain a copy of whatever contract the city may sign with its commissioned artists, but the process has been repeatedly delayed, and she believes no contract actually exists. Hyperallergic has tried to contact Hansson and the Office of Cultural Affairs, but has not received a response.

Wilson and the NCAC are calling for a government board that includes arts professionals to oversee the entire process, from reviewing submissions to corresponding with the affected communities to dealing with the public’s complaints. This recent, high-profile case appears to have convinced City Hall that it must implement change: The Jersey Journal reported today that officials will establish a committee to review all candidates for the mural program, with city council planning to approve it this September. It will include local artists, as City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said.

Wilson, however, maintains skeptical of the endeavor and said she has little faith in the forthcoming panel.

“So much will depend upon who is on the panel and how much power they have, and how open they make the rest of the process, including the application,” she told Hyperallergic. “I would really like to see the whole program re-envisioned and rethought, rather than just adding a politically appointed panel to something that isn’t working.”

For now, the square on Pedestrian Plaza remains green, empty of art aside from a new, albeit fleeting, addition this afternoon from an anonymous protestor: chalk scribbles that read, “CENSORED — BROOKE HANSSON (THANKS FULOP).”

If only!! #JerseyCity #streetview #streetart #cityscape #monopoly #galaxys7edge

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