Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Signage Vs Art, Part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts about classifying images as "signage" or "art". I should clarify that I in fact think ALL signage is art. But this specific topic is about the legal distinctions between sign and mural, or sign and sculpture in regards to public ordinances.

Parts one and two are here:

Here is an interesting 2010 story from the Washington Post about an art conflict in Arlington Virginia:

The owner of dog boarding facility called "Wag More Dogs" paid $4000 to have a mural containing images of dogs playing painted on the side of her building. The side of the building where the mural was painted happens to face a dog park. The dogs also happened to be very similar to the dogs that are contained in her logo.

From the story:

When county zoning administrator Melinda Artman saw the artwork, she said it violated the county's sign rules, which stipulate signs may take up no more than 60 square feet. Kim said she was given two options: cover up the frolicking dogs or add "Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area" above the mural in four-foot high letters. A third option: leave the mural as is and face fines.

So... the mural was interpreted as a sign, and therefore was subject to the signage ordinance.

Lets not ignore the fact here that the zoning administrator (or someone in the government) came up with a creative idea! Adding text focusing the mural on the dog park was certainly a clever suggestion. I'll desist from adding my opinion as to the merit of that suggestion.

In any case, the situation continued to deteriorate. The article continues:

Last week, the Institute of Justice entered the fray, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the zoning administrator and the county arguing that Kim has been denied her Constitutional right to freedom of speech.

And this:

Houghton commissioned the mural for $4,000 in 2010, and acknowledged in court papers that it “incorporates some of the cartoon dogs in Wag More Dogs’ logo.” Her federal lawsuit seeking to keep the mural uncovered also acknowledged that the mural was intended “to create good will with the people who frequented the dog park” behind the store, “many of whom were potential Wag More Dogs customers.”

My goal in the writing of these posts is to explore both conflicts and success stories, in order to help craft the best possible policy for small towns, and to avoid disasters like this. I am currently involved in helping to develop a public art policy for the town of Ashland, Virginia.

Again from the story:

So, does the fact that Kim was hoping it would do what a sign does - inform and attract customers - make it a sign? No, she says. "When you get right down to it, what my intentions were don't make it a sign or not. . . . This is what I tell people who think it's a sign: Stand in front of the mural. If you know nothing about my business, does it tell you anything about my business? It's simply dogs playing on a wall.

I think she is dead on here. Policy can not be crafted on intention. Nor (like the Richmond Camera case) can it be crafted on the character of the artist. To say "well, you MEANT for it to be a sign, therefore it is a sign" is absurd. Also, to say "Well, it was a student art project, so it is art", is equally absurd.

Here is a photo of the art in question. Image from the Washington Post:

Mural on side of dog boarding facility. The mural faces a public dog park. Photo from Washington Post.
And here folks, is the follow up to the story from a September 2012 Washington Post article. The owner lost her legal battle, and was forced to paint over the mural.

From the Washing Post:

The judge concluded that Houghton “cannot reasonably assert that the dog mural is anything other than a business sign, erected as part of a business strategy to advertise and promote the Wag More Dogs brand.” Brinkema said allowing more signs like Wag More Dogs could create ”a virtual cacophony of competing commercial signs” that would harm traffic and aesthetics. Arlington’s ordinance “aims to avoid such a result — and rightly so,” the judge ruled.

I really don't know what is the intent of Arlington's ordinance, as I haven't read it. The real question is, what do YOU want from an ordinance in your town, and is the language crafted in such a way as to achieve those goals? As for me, I certainly want to avoid THIS from happening:

Owner of Wag More Dogs painting over $4000 mural which she commissioned. Photo from Washington Post.

No comments:

Post a Comment