The mural went up and the sky didn’t fall

Published 6:29 am Friday, September 28, 2018


Contributing columnist

Now that the mural controversy dust has settled, it’s time to consider the process that upended our quiet little burg. Why did it become such a big deal?

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The Architectural Heritage Board, AHB, is tasked with the unenviable job of vetting public art proposals. In order for a piece of art to be installed within the designated historic overlay, the sponsor of the art must request a Certificate of Approval (COA) from the board. Once that is granted, the public art project can proceed.

According to the City of Danville AHB Guidelines, the objective of the AHB in deciding public art projects is to “provide opportunities for public art that appropriately enhances the aesthetic qualities of Danville’s commercial corridors.” There is also a list of bullet points that attempt to quantify appropriateness and aesthetics. Whew!

The mural project, sponsored by the Heart of Danville, was funded by a nationally competitive AARP grant. Nick Wade, Executive Director of the Heart, wrote the grant with the support of the Heart’s board of directors. Being awarded a nationally competitive grant is a HUGE deal. The artist, Andee Rudloff — known for her whimsical, colorful murals — submitted a black-and-white design for consideration. The design depicted images that represent Danville, including parts of a brass instrument, C6H0 from Centre, Trinity Church’s red doors and many other recognizable images.

I’ll be honest. When I first saw the black and white design, I was not a fan. It was busy, confusing, and frankly, took too much concentration for me to decipher what it was supposed to represent. I returned to the design several times because so many people said it was wonderful. I wanted to see the wonderful.

The AHB clearly did not see wonderful in the design with its vote against allowing the project to proceed. I heard several reasons as to why the board thought the mural wasn’t appropriate for the blank wall facing a parking lot on Third Street. I personally suspect it was too colorful and fun for the group, but I digress.

Thankfully, the city commission voted to override the AHB and allow the mural to go on the blank wall overlooking the parking lot.

The morning of the Great Mural Painting, Rudloff freehand painted the outline for the mural. Community members were there to fill in the outlines with yellow, green, blue, red and gold. Over 120 people came to participate in this project! All ages painted, from toddlers to those of indeterminate age. It was fun and festive. Rain did not deter would-be artists from showing up to lend a hand or two.

The mural is destined to become an iconic symbol of Danville. It will be a backdrop to life as high school seniors, wedding parties, school reunions, tourists and locals have their pictures taken in front of it.

Sadly, this perfect, family-oriented community project came perilously close to not happening. The majority of the AHB felt the mural wasn’t aesthetically appropriate for the historic blank wall overlooking the parking lot.

Danville is blessed with an active art scene. The Community Arts Center is a vibrant hub of arts activities. The Arts Commission of Danville sponsors several events throughout the year, including the gallery hops, which are a personal favorite. It’s incredible that our small community is a prolific producer and consumer of art.

Additionally, the AHB-driven controversy created an amazing groundswell of support for the mural project specifically, but also for public art in general. It was energizing to read comments on social media from parents of young children who were passionate about their support of the mural project. Many of those parents stated that they were interested in being on a committee for public art.

Let’s learn something from this controversy. The AHB is tasked with safeguarding the integrity of Danville’s historic overlay. A requirement to be on the board is have a working knowledge of historic architecture. There is no requirement that members be well-versed in public art.

Maybe that group isn’t the best avenue for making decisions about public art. Perhaps it’s time for Danville to grow by an additional committee tasked with overseeing public art projects. Surely the city commission can make that happen.

In the meantime, we wait for the rains to stop so the mural can be completed. But that’s a whole ‘nother column.

G. Elaine Wilson Reddy, JD, is a professional educator, consultant and advocate. She lives in Danville.