Art allowed: Danville now prepared to consider downtown mural projects

Published 11:48 am Thursday, December 21, 2017

With their new design guidelines in hand, members of Danville’s Architectural Heritage Board are preparing to tackle the issue of public art for the first time.

AHB members reviewed the new rules concerning murals on historic buildings with Danville City Attorney Stephen Dexter Wednesday, as a prelude to possibly approving the city’s first downtown mural at their January meeting.

Dexter told them the problem with approving murals and art before had to do with definitions. Specifically, there was no definition of what public art could be.

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“By virtue of that, the only thing that (a public mural) would fit the definition of is a sign,” Dexter said. “So for lack of a better definition, that’s the only thing that could be interpreted as.”

The AHB and the local planning and zoning office both have sign regulations that don’t mesh well with murals, which would likely well exceed the size limitations applied to signs, Dexter said.

Members of the community “took several stabs” at coming up with a solution, but none worked — until the city landed a grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council to update the design guidelines for the historic overlay district downtown, Dexter said.

The new design guidelines were developed over the course of about three months during the first half of 2017, then tweaked some more until Danville City Commission finalized them in October.

“We now have a rule that says … public art and murals should meet these qualifications or guidelines,” Dexter said. “… The more general rule of signage no longer applies. We now have a specific definition for murals — it’s no longer a sign, it is a mural. It does not require planning and zoning approval, because planning and zoning only approves signs.”

Dexter said the new guidelines help spell out how public art and murals can now gain approval: Property owners and any partners on a public art project will apply to the AHB for a “certificate of appropriateness;” then, it will be the AHB’s job to make a “discretionary” decision about whether the art project complies with the guidelines.

Essentially, the AHB will have to decide whether the project qualifies as art and can be regulated according to the design guidelines for public art; or if it doesn’t qualify as art, then whether the project complies with the normal sign regulations, Dexter said.

P&Z Director Steve Hunter said he was pleased with how the new setup would function. He said he expects the P&Z Commission will be happy to let the AHB take the lead on matters in the historic overlay district.

“I feel that if this board says in their discretion, ‘this is an appropriate use of this building, that sign looks good’ — and I’m talking specifically about a sign — and if it goes a little bit outside the bounds of the zoning ordinance, I don’t think the planning commission then should come in and say, ‘denied,'” Hunter said. “I think that if this board approves a (conditional use permit), then it’s almost a rubber stamp when that permit comes into us, because this board has already used their discretion, their authority … to say, ‘this is what we’re doing on that building.'”

The guidelines read in part that “while signs specifically advertise a business, product or service, artwork such as murals are designed to be solely artistic in nature. Artwork in the historic overlay cannot include trademarks, service marks or other markings, patterns or colors readily identifiable with a business, product or service.”

But AHB member Julie Wagner said the new guidelines do allow for a business name to be part of a mural in some cases. Dexter said sometimes businesses might sponsor a public art piece; in those cases, the business names might appear in a minor way on the mural in order to identify sponsors.

“They can be a part of it, they just can’t be a major part of it,” he said.

The guidelines specify that murals on the sides of historic buildings would ideally be painted on a removable surface such as wood and then attached to the side of the building, rather than being painted directly on the building. But AHB members said they’re open to allowing art projects that are painted directly on buildings, when the buildings have already been painted and there’s a good maintenance plan presented for the project.

“The way we see it as written is, ‘bring us a perfectly reasonable proposal, with a reasonable care structure, from a group we have confidence in.’ Most likely, we’re going to approve something to be painted on a painted surface,” AHB member Mary Girard said. “… On these cases, I cannot begin to say how everything is going to be on an individual basis, and very much related to which building, where, how big, what kind of stuff.”

Dexter said preferring removable surfaces for building murals has the benefit of allowing a mural to be taken down if “tastes change,” and old murals could even be taken down and put on display somewhere else.

AHB Chair Tom Tye said the city is “treading down a whole new pathway” with the new guidelines.

“A little bit of cautiousness to make sure we do it right initially, I think is warranted,” Tye said. “We can get way out in left field real quick and go, ‘oh, maybe this isn’t where we wanted to go.’ So we have to be a bit careful, particularly initially. It’s a learning process; it’s new to this community.”

Girard asked about something mentioned by AHB members before: the idea of creating an advisory committee to review and recommend public art projects to the AHB.

Previously, AHB members have said an advisory committee could relieve the AHB from having to make decisions about the actual content of art.

Dexter said the AHB does not have the authority to set up such a committee.

“You are appointed to be that filter. So for you to request a committee is somewhat to … push your responsibility off to another vetting wing,” Dexter said. “The (Danville City) Commission has said they don’t want this to be just with the Arts Commission, or with a community art board … they want this to be citizens that they have appointed for that specific purpose.”

Girard asked, then, “is the city commission prepared to back up our decisions or override them as necessary,” if someone complains that an approved public art display is offensive?

“Yes,” Dexter said.

“The commission takes it very seriously who they appoint to this board and that because of their confidence in you, they feel like you are the best equipped individuals to make those decisions for our community,” he said. “… It’s true. I know they weigh these appointments very seriously.”

Public art application

An application for public art filed with the Danville Architectural Heritage Board includes this rendering of what a wall mural on a North Fourth Street building could look like. The AHB will consider the application in January.

The Community Arts Center has filed an application for a public artwork — a circular mural that would contain the words “art,” “local” and “Danville, Ky,” painted on the side of the Sherwin Williams store at 411 N. Fourth St.

The design would have about a 13.5-foot diameter, according to the application, which is set to be considered by the AHB at its regular January meeting.

“The focus of the Community Arts Center’s proposed mural is ‘Art Local,’ a grassroots movement within the arts community whose purpose is to promote pride in and support of local and regional art and artists,” the application reads. “… ‘Art Local’ is not a tagline specific to the Community Arts Center nor is it used exclusively within an art-buying context. Art Local can refer to taking art classes, visiting local art galleries, touring art studios or even creating your own artwork in your home with your kids. It is a phrase that is meant to inspire community members to see themselves as part of their local arts community.

The south side of Sherwin-Williams Paints on North Fourth Street could host a wall mural. The AHB will consider in January whether to approve the project, which could become the first formally approved public art project under Danville’s new downtown design guidelines. (Ben Kleppinger/

“Due to the inclusion of words in the mural design, under the previous AHB design guidelines, the mural would have been considered a sign. The revised guidelines helpfully differentiate between public art and signage and make clear that the proposed mural is ‘art’ rather than ‘advertising.'”

Included with the application is a letter from the property owner, John Bowling, stating “enthusiastic support for the Community Arts Center’s propos(ed) mural installation.”

“Public art projects add to the vibrancy and beauty of our historic downtown,” Bowling wrote. “I have full confidence in the Community Arts Center’s ability to bring the proposed project to life with skill and professionalism. I have discussed the maintenance plan for the artwork with the Arts Center staff and am satisfied that the mural will be adequately maintained.”