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Who fights for public art in the face of gentrification?

For more than four decades, muralist William Walker’s oil painted facade of the Strangers’ Home Missionary Baptist Church presided over Chicago’s Evergreen Avenue. In the mural, shadowy upturned faces melted into one another, their permanent gaze fixed on four central figures. The technicolor foursome, hands entwined, embraced under a white dove and symbols of the world’s major religions.

Closeup of William Walker’s “All of Mankind” (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group)

Juarez Hawkins, a Chicago-based artist, teacher and curator of current William Walker exhibit “Urban Griot,” called it Walker’s “Sistine Chapel.”

“It was really kind of his vision of humanity,” Hawkins said. “It sort of asked this question, why were people being martyred? And perhaps, can we come to some vision of unity that transcends race and gender and religion?”

Today, all that’s left of “All of Mankind,” one of the last three Walker pieces left in Chicago, is some greyish white paint that was slathered over the painting when the church went up for sale. Although there are efforts now to see if the mural can be restored, Hawkins said the whitewashing in 2015 happened without much of a challenge.

Across America, street art is often at risk of destruction as neighborhoods develop and gentrify. There is also often little legal recourse for those who want to preserve work erected on privately-owned structures, regardless of the work’s cultural importance.

Last month in New York City, Louis Delsartes’ iconic “Spirit of Harlem” mosaic in New York disappeared when a Footaction store moved into the adjacent storefront and covered the glass mural with a black brick wall. The community protested the cover-up, with some citing the steady erasure of black culture and art from Harlem. Foot Locker, the store’s parent company, bowed to the pressure and assured the neighborhood the wall would be removed.

The black brick wall that currently covers Louis Delsarte’s “Spirit of Harlem” mosaic (Photo by AFineLyne)

Street and public art, aside from beautifying neighborhoods, has been shown to have positive health and emotional effects on neighborhoods.

Some scholars point out that public art can be an educational tool for community youth, encouraging creative learning and cultural awareness. One study transformed a busy intersection in Portland, Oregon into a public art space, and in interviewing residents found that the painted space created greater “social capital and social cohesion” than the adjacent neighborhood.

But John D. Mason, owner of Copyright Counsellors LLC in Washington D.C., said cases involving public art protection rarely reach the courts.

“A lot of times artists don’t have the resources to fight property owners, landlords, commercial developers, those kind of folks who have deep pockets,” Mason said.

The Visual Artists Rights Act (V.A.R.A.), passed in 1990, protects the “moral rights” of artists and their work regardless of who owns the copyright. Even if an artist sells a painting to a buyer, that buyer could be sued under V.A.R.A. for altering the piece in any way the artist deems violates the original artistic vision of the work.

While V.A.R.A. was originally intended for work that could be collected or exhibited in galleries and did not cover street or public art, Mason said that a new ruling has changed that exclusion.

People walk by the graffiti destination 5 Pointz, partially painted white, in the borough of Queens in New York, November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

People walk by the graffiti destination 5 Pointz, partially painted white, in the borough of Queens in New York, November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The colorful “graffiti mecca” of 5 Pointz became an unofficial tourist destination in Long Island City when 20 artists tagged and painted the building in the early 1990s. The property owner, Jerry Wolkoff allowed the artists to paint whatever they liked, but exercised his right to whitewash the work years later when he was ready to sell the building.

5 Pointz artists sued for monetary compensation under V.A.R.A. and won the case in November this year, expanding the limits of the law to include street art for the first time.

Mason said this new ruling is a powerful tool for public artists.

“It’s the first time also that aerosol or graffiti art has been recognized as having sufficient merit, or the technical term is ‘recognizable stature,’ to qualify as a sort of work intended for exhibit,” Mason said.

Although case law may make it easier to protect street art, Mason believes it’s the responsibility of artists to formalize deals for new works with property owners ahead of time.

“It’s a lot easier to go to court if you have a clear contract that shows everyone’s intent at the beginning of the relationship when the mural was painted,” Mason said. She believes public art protection is also dependent on the relationship between the artist and the community.

“Artists get as much protection as they and their advocates are willing to fight for,” she said. The Harlem mural was saved, for example, because the community saw it as so important.

But gentrification can threaten this relationship when sympathetic residents are forced to move out of their neighborhoods by rising housing prices, and if there aren’t any voices left to protest when the art gets destroyed.

In the case of Walker’s “All of Mankind” mural in Chicago, Hawkins said residents of the area who would have advocated for its preservation were pushed out of the neighborhood when affordable housing was demolished.

Jon Pounds, former executive director of nonprofit public art advocacy organization the Chicago Public Art Group, believes public art carries messages that visitors and residents can learn from years after the paint has dried.

Art in Chicago’s historically segregated neighborhoods, for example, was created by marginalized communities to speak to important moments in their history that shouldn’t be erased, Pounds said. “All of Mankind” is one example, he said.

“That was a mural done ahead of its time, and we’re still not done with the content of that mural. We’re still wrestling with it as a society,” he said.

Mei Lum, founder of the W.O.W. project in New York City’s Chinatown, also pushes back against gentrification in her neighborhood, in this case by highlighting Chinatown’s traditional cultural aesthetics.

William Walker at work on “All of Mankind” (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group)

The W.O.W. project aims to reclaim Chinatown’s community culture for its original residents through the promotion of local arts, culture and community engagement.

She uses her family’s century-old storefront, Wing on Wo & Co., as a display for Chinatown artists in residence who create art for the Chinese Lunar New Year with community input.

“So I think with the storefront residency what were trying to do is meet the community where they’re at…it lives and breathes with the community,” said Lum.

Lum said she wants to counter the influx of the hundreds of art galleries cropping up in the area that don’t cater to the residents who have lived there for years. “I think the dominant narrative with them has been the fact that they’re bringing culture to our neighborhood. And so I really want to counter that narrative and say ‘no, we’ve been here for over 120 years.’”

Money, ownership and case law aside, public art is a powerful representation of the current life of communities and the ideas residents find important.

“So when these pieces ultimately are, let’s say discarded, what you’re doing is discarding the community, you’re discarding the values of the community. You’re discarding, in some cases, the very work of the community,” he said.

Pounds said that we should ask ourselves what ideological value public works have today and that should be reason enough to fight for it, or at least keep dialogue open about its protection.

“Artists continue to cause trouble,” he said. “I think that it’s in causing trouble and examining contradiction…that we get a larger cultural and social dialogue. And I think that’s what muralists have been about.”