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Painting the walls of City Beautiful

By Elaine De Valle
--Published May 28, 1998, The Miami Herald


Picture strolling down Miracle Mile, looking through windows at the wedding gowns, shoes and jewels, reaching the red light at Salzedo and stopping.


Caught by a collage of colors to the left, you see a the view from a cliff on the Mediterranean. Or a Romero Britto abstract of the Biltmore Hotel.

Urban art? Eyesores?

 painting-walls.jpg (28133 bytes)

City officials are mulling a law to allow murals in the City Beautiful: a town where property owners need government approval before they can paint their buildings in just one color .

Now, murals are a no-no. But Gables Planning Director Richard Bass, who found more than 20 blank walls in the Central Business District that can be filled with art, says murals could be a creative, artistic way to activate the downtown.

Not everyone likes the concept. Gables commissioners say they are supportive, though cautious and skeptical.

Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli said the city must initiate a murals program to stay within the circle of major world cities.

But Vice Mayor Dorothy Thomson urges caution: ``We need to go slowly. It's a big decision and we need to explore all the ramifications. It's something we should not have second thoughts about after the fact.''

Andres Murai, code enforcement board chairman, has many concerns.

`How are you going to approve one and deny another one? What is art? Who owns the mural? Is it the city or the individual? How will they blend in with the surroundings? How are they going to affect other owners in the area? Are we going to have a panel of experts to decide what is proper?

'The ordinance as written has a lot of loopholes and quite some room for controversy in the future. There's a big issue of maintenance. Strictly from a code enforcement view, we are opening Pandora's Box.''

Murai said he would prefer a more permanent treatment that needs less maintenance, such as a glass overlay ``mosaic'' mural created by local artist Xavier Cortada and students at Coral Gables Elementary. The mural will be installed in an interior courtyard later this year in celebration of the school's 75th anniversary.

``The concerns about review and maintenance are very legitimate,'' said Bass, who is rewriting the ordinance to address application, review and maintenance.

``When they aren't maintained, they do become part of the problem instead of part of the solution,'' said Elizabeth Jackson, president of the International Downtown Association in Washington, D.C., a national think tank on downtown revitalization.

But she hopes that won't keep the Gables walls blank. ``The city can set up standards and guidelines to prevent that and to ensure they get the murals they want,'' Jackson said. Observers outside the city are watching and eagerly awaiting some sort of green light for a spectrum of murals, they say.

``The most intelligent way to proceed is to put a professional process into place that addresses some of the concerns up front,'' said Vivian Donnell Rodriguez, executive director of the county's Art in Public Places.

She suggests the city set up a review panel of artists and architects who could be a first stop for submitted proposals.

``Public art, and murals are of course included in that, is a benefit for any community,'' Rodriguez said. ``It is one of the things that, in a visual way, expresses a community's thinking and ideals, as good architecture does and any cultural activities do.''

The proposed Gables mural ordinance now calls for proposals to be reviewed first by the city's cultural affairs advisory board and then by its board of architects. Bass said he is looking into adding a preliminary evaluation panel of city employees.

But Rodriguez and some local artists warn against getting too standardized.

``I don't think a mural committee should say the mural can only be this size and this color and this subject matter,'' she said. ``The objective should be work that reflects or says something about that community -- its history, its aspirations, its dreams, its flora and fauna, whatever.''

George Neary, director of cultural tourism for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, is excited about the idea.


``In a number of cities I've visited, they have walking tours and bus tours of mural sites,'' Neary said. ``In San Francisco, for instance, they have fabulous murals in different parts of the city that people visit and locals treasure. It becomes a draw for people to come in and visit.''

In Miami's Overtown, the Lyric Theatre has a mural of black men and women who have been part of the history of the city, Neary said. ``It's a wonderful addition to the streetscape in that neighborhood.''

Several cities nationwide and locally have turned to murals as a way to encourage more activity in their downtown areas and even to bring in tourists, including Santa Cruz, Calif., Cincinnati, New York City and Philadelphia.

On Miami Beach, senior planner Tom Mooney said exterior murals are subject to appropriateness and design review by the city.

``They are looked at on a case by case basis, but murals are permitted as an artistic super-graphic as long as they contain no commercial message,'' he said. ``If they are found to be appropriate to the building, they are approved.''

In the past year, the city got two applications, Mooney said. One at the Wolfsonian Museum was approved. A series of murals on a hotel at 69th Street and Collins Avenue received mixed reviews: those pool-side were approved; those facing the street were denied.

``They were not appropriate or compatible to the architecture of the building,'' Mooney said. painting-walls2.jpg (37413 bytes)

Gables Commissioner Wayne ``Chip'' Withers is worried the city will be sued if it denies a mural memorial of the Holocaust or Bay of Pigs or some other social statement like a call against abortion.

But Mooney said the Beach hasn't seen anything like that.

``The type of murals and super-graphics we've been getting have been abstract artistic images. They are not putting forth any type of social or political arguments,'' he said. ``They are designed to accentuate or augment blank walls.''

Sally Cupp, Homestead's former economic development specialist for the arts, who led a drive to bring murals to that city in 1996, agreed. ``You can't walk into a town and say `Here, we're going to put up a fetus,' '' she said. ``Public art isn't some haphazard fly-by-night operation. A dialogue must be established between the community members, the artists and the arts professionals who can guide the city through the process.''

There was a lot of opposition in Homestead at first, too, she said. But now, the murals have become local landmarks and focal points for the community.

``The city was so delighted with its project it went from one mural to eight,'' Cupp said.

The murals of the city's history and traditions -- such as the rodeo, agriculture and the Everglades -- have been featured in magazines and in a local bank's calendar, she said.

Homestead funded the project through grants and won a 1997 Downtown Achievement Award from the International Downtown Association.

Cupp said the Gables should seek support from the Art in Public Places community outreach program and suggests having some sort of competition to get the kind of art it wants.

``Community involvement is a necessity. What we did was have a town meeting and we said, `We're going to paint the walls. What would you like to see?' And they said we'd like to see something about the Motorsports complex, the rodeo, our agricultural history. They gave me a list.''

She provided the information to artists and a committee of local residents, council members and arts professionals selected preferred images. The city council had the final say.

Roger Schluntz, a professor of architecture at the University of Miami, said competitions are the best way to go to make sure the city gets what it wants.

``The city could designate or property owners could propose specific locations and then I envision a limited design competition for that particular location,'' Schluntz said. ``The proposals are competitive and the selection panel selects what they presume is the best work, or has the power to reject all and say none of these meet our aesthetic standards or expectations.''

``I hope they won't be too skittish,'' said Jackson, of the International Downtown Association. ``A series of murals can become like an outdoor museum, and that's a good thing to be known for.''