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Word to the Wise:
Be careful where you put your mural!

March 2007
by Jennifer Hambrick


Mural reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's Parisian streetscape Café Terrace at Night painted on the Norka Futon Building at 780 N. High Street. Photo/Kaizaad Kotwal

The construction of a patio smoking area at Union Food + Bar, 782 N. High St., has some people fuming.

The building project, which brings a newly constructed facade closer to High Street, creating a courtyard effect in front of the restaurant, threatens to obscure from view of passersby the stylized mural reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s Parisian streetscape Café Terrace at Night painted on the north exterior wall of the neighboring building at 780 N. High St.

Wood Companies president Sandy Wood commissioned now-defunct Dragonfly Design to design and paint the mural in 2003. Rodney Davis, who owns the building at 780 N. High, paid $10,000 to have the mural painted.

The Van Gogh mural is not the first mural project The Wood Companies has helped bring about. In 1990, directors of The Wood Companies had worked with Citizens for a Better Skyline to create the Mona Lisa mural that now is the namesake of the Wood Companies’ Mona Lisa Condominiums on Pearl Street. Wood says he commissioned the Van Gogh mural to contribute to the Short North’s artistic flair.

“The Short North is an arts district, and all the murals have been put up with the objective of enhancing that image and making it a kind of arts district feel,” Wood said.

Davis, who is taking legal action, says the area’s artsy flavor was what enticed him to become a Short North property owner.

“My attraction to the Short North was because of what I believed to be tight controls to make this an arts district shopping strip,” Davis said.

In funding the painting of the Van Gogh mural, Davis says he believed he was making an enduring contribution to the artistic feel of the neighborhood.

“I presumed that the mural was a permanent asset for the Short North as per the other murals that have been there for many years,” Davis said.

Maddy Weisz, president of the Brick Street Arts Association, a volunteer organization that facilitates the development of public artworks in the Short North, says she assumes the public art projects her organization helps bring about will be supported by other local entities as longstanding additions to the area.

“I would like to think that the piece (of public art) would maintain its integrity, and that the entities around it would support that feeling,” Weiss said. “It would seem kind of disheartening that the work might be altered without much forethought. Each of these pieces, though they seem to disappear to people, there’s a lot of background work that goes into them, besides the work that the artists put into them.”

“I was kind of surprised,” said artist Susan O’Dell, who helped paint the Van Gogh mural, on seeing the construction at 782 N. High. “It just seems inconsiderate. Obviously they don’t care about the mural and they’re just doing what they want to do.”

Rajesh Lahoti, CIO of Roy G. Biv Corporation, which owns Union Food + Bar, and a principal in Arms Properties, which owns the property where the restaurant stands, sees the Van Gogh mural – and all other murals – as a stopgap measure to beautify a bare surface until it can be altered permanently by development.

“The murals were put up to be temporary,” Lahoti said. “They were never meant to be permanent. It was commissioned on a blighted area until someone could do the proper development.”

Others agree. “When the mural was commissioned it was kind of a way to pretty up an ugly wall, knowing that murals are always a temporary solution,” said Dean Berlon, a principal with Urban Order Architecture, which completed the design of the Union Food + Bar patio.

“We (the Italian Village Commission) view the murals as temporary solutions to an empty wall or a vacant lot,” said Rex Hagerling, currently chair of the Italian Village Commission, which approved both the painting of the Van Gogh mural and, later, the patio construction at Union Food + Bar. “We are far more interested in having undeveloped land filled in than we are in having murals on the sides of buildings. We certainly are not interested in essentially establishing a vacant lot in perpetuity simply because there’s a mural on the side of the building next to it. Murals are meant to be temporary solutions. They are not meant to be permanent or sacrosanct.”

According to City of Columbus Historic Preservation Officer Randy Black, outdoor murals often bide their time until the streetscape gaps they help beautify can be filled in.

Construction of a patio smoking bar at Union Food + Bar, 782 N. High Street, February 2007. Photo/Darren Carlson

“Murals on the sides of buildings can be and most often probably are temporary in nature, unless they have some historic integrity,” Black said. “The job is to do infill if we can ever get to that.”

Still, Lahoti says the plans for the Union Food + Bar patio were drawn with concern for preserving the mural.

“We think the mural’s beautiful, so we thought maybe there’s a way we could develop the land and keep the mural visible,” Lahoti said. “The majority of the mural will be seen by everyone on the street.”

The design for the patio included creating a second facade for the building and moving it closer to High St. to be in line with the facade of neighboring 780 N. High. The Italian Village Commission requested only some minor alterations to the design, most notably that the bar, which the plans had placed in front of the mural wall, be moved to a different space within the patio area so as not to obscure the view of the mural. Berlon said Urban Order moved the bar across the patio from the mural and placed a lounge-like low seating group on the mural side of the patio.

Berlon says the extended facade wall will not obstruct the mural – from view of those on the patio.

“By just doing this facade wall on High Street, it protects the mural, so when you’re on the patio, you can observe it much like you could before. So the mural isn’t being obscured at all.”

However, mural artist Dwaine MacDonald, who collaborated with O’Dell in painting the Van Gogh mural, says the plus-size mural was not intended for up-close viewing.

“A piece on that scale is meant to be viewed from a couple blocks away,” MacDonald said. “Any mural that size, to get a whole view of it, you have to be a block or two down the street.”

“I think from two or three blocks away, the mural will be certainly partially obstructed,” said Hagerling. “The mural will probably be mainly viewed by the patrons of the patio. I don’t think it’s going to be closed off entirely. If the artists feel that it was meant to be viewed from far away, then certainly (the construction of the patio) would affect that.”

Artist and art educator Concha Castaneda says only when viewed from a greater perspective does the mural’s Parisian open-air cafe scene become part of the surrounding Columbus streetscape, and the artists’ clever addition of a lighted Short North arch become clearly visible.

“It seems to me that that particular mural was made so that you could stand in a certain spot on the street and you could see how it blends in with the street,” Castaneda said. “(The artists have) added an arch into the painting, and if you’re at the right angle it lines up with the actual arch. It may very well be the only time that we actually see those arches lit – in the painting that is not real.”

A Match Made in Heaven or a Marriage of Convenience?
In an area like the Short North, where commerce and the arts are so interdependent, and where, despite its appeal as a trendy arts district, the streetscape in places still has the look of a gap-toothed grin, which should have the upper hand: development or the arts?

Weisz believes the Short North is the vibrant business district it is today because its arts-district feel attracts entrepreneurs to a trendy, chic part of town.

“I feel that the art drives the Short North,” Weisz said. “People really see it as kind of a quirky, unique kind of place to come to, and public artworks definitely enhance that image. I think people come down there and they see the murals and the sculptures and the galleries, and to me that was the beginning of the Short North. It is a blend, but I think the arts really enhance that area and make it special.”

For Lahoti the lines separating commerce, development and art may not be so clearly drawn.

“The art and culture are why I live in the neighborhood,” said Lahoti, a Victorian Village resident. “I think the area is art and culture. I want to be near it. I also think restaurants and clubs are arts and culture. We’re really an outdoor mall and we are competing with every other outdoor mall out there. I think we collectively need to figure out how to bring traffic to the Short North in general.”

“People are so aware of art and its role in the essence of this district,” Angelo said. “It’s in the murals, it’s in the pocket parks, it’s in the thoughtful nature in which the (Short North Special Improvements District) is approaching the streetscape. Art is permeating every aspect of this district. That balance (of art and commercial development) is crucial because it’s what makes the Short North so special, that melding of business and art. It’s what draws the creative spirit here. From the SNBA standpoint, that is a signature that we will fight tooth and nail to nurture, but in a balanced way.”

The Short North Business Association has not been shy about using the area’s artsy feel as a marketing tool to bring visitors to the area. The Short North Arts District Guide regularly details the locations of the district’s art galleries and outlines stops on the Short North mural tour. The cover of the Summer/Fall 2006 Visitor’s Guide featured a photograph of the Van Gogh mural itself.

Castaneda sees the patio construction at Union Food + Bar as an indication that Short North leaders, including Italian Village Commission members, favor commercial development over art. She also questions whether the Short North business community is genuinely concerned about the area’s public art, beyond its ability to attract potential customers.

“They’re kind of advertising without advertising,” Castaneda said. “They’re saying, ‘Look, we’re all about art.’ (But) you can’t pretend that art is a really cool thing and then cover it up because you want to make a glorified smoking area.”

Location, Location, Location
Davis says he did not investigate obtaining an easement or any other contractual agreement that limited the development that Arms Properties could carry out at 782 N. High.

Tim Wagner, director of the Short North Special Improvement District (SID), says before the SID invested in the creation of the limestone sofa at 1159 N. High St. and the obelisk on Poplar Plaza, it entered into special agreements with the City of Columbus that prevent the City from moving the artworks.

“We didn’t want to put the investment there until we were sure that we had strong assurance that (the artworks) would stay.”

But Wagner also says the SID in conjunction with the Brick Street Arts Association, agreed to place the obelisk on Poplar Plaza because the plaza could not be developed further. The sofa, he says, could be moved if necessary.

“Both of those works of art are fairly movable,” Wagner said. “It’s easy for a crane to come and pick it up and take it away. It’s not like a mural. You can’t just take a mural away. If someone wanted to do something on Poplar Plaza, we could say, ‘Okay we’re going to take our artwork out of here. We’re going to get it out of the way and let you do whatever you want to do.’ You don’t have that option with a mural.”

Beyond securing an easement or contracts, Wagner says the best way to ensure that a mural won’t be covered up is to have it painted near property that cannot be developed. Placing the mural next to an undevelopable property might have helped preserve its intended visibility.

“It was a risk that (Rodney Davis and The Wood Company) took putting (the Van Gogh mural) up without clear understanding from the adjacent property owner that they wouldn’t cover it up. I would advocate for more judicious selection of mural sites. There’s not much chance of the American Gothic mural being obscured by another building. Murals should be something that we want more of and want to protect, but at the same time we have to be careful where we put them. I think what this is coming to is that in the future, people will think about getting into an agreement with the adjacent property owner before they do this.”

©2004 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.