Who fights for public art in the face of gentrification?

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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.

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.

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.

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