Artistic content was the most significant community concern raised during Thursday’s Downtown Frankfort Mural Working Group meeting at City Hall.
The group is not a formal committee or organization but an informal group organized by Eric Cockley, the city’s director of planning and community development, so Frankfort residents, commissioners and business people could discuss concerns about the future of murals in Frankfort.
The meeting was a result of reactions to a Buddha mural painted on the side of a building at Catfish Alley and Broadway.
“I appreciate everybody, on pretty short notice, coming out so we could start this discussion,” Cockley said. “I know this topic has recently become particularly interesting for a whole lot of people for a whole lot of reasons.”
Cockley began by explaining existing regulations on adding paint to historical brick buildings. He said if a brick building has been painted previously, there are no regulations to keep paint from being added again. However, if a historical brick building has never been painted before, then the building owner is required to submit a painting request to the city, he explained.
“Are you saying on a building that has been painted, the owner can paint anything he wants on that?” asked South Frankfort resident Lyda Phillips.
“It can’t be offensive,” Cockley said.
“I’m not saying obscene,” Phillips said. “I live in South Frankfort and, really, what I love about Frankfort is the history and architecture. I appreciate the art, but I’m more of a historian and I bought a house in South Frankfort. I would really not like it if the apartment building next door to me, privately owned, an old hippie bought and did a psychedelic mural in front and down the side of my house. Are you telling me I don’t have protection from that?”
“The short answer is yes,” Cockley said. “We don’t regulate paint colors, so we don’t regulate art.”
“I would like to see murals somewhat reflective of our culture and, to me, Buddha’s not our culture,” Phillips said, adding she may be considered old-fashioned or a traditionalist because of her views.
“I am a little different. I like diversity and that’s what we’re pushing for to make sure that we are one community,” said City Commissioner Katrisha Walridge. “Sometimes as a piece of art goes up, it may not be our religion and it may not be connected to us, but someone in our community is into that religion and things of that nature.”
She went on to encourage citizens in attendance to research Buddhism by picking up some books on the religion. By striving to learn about the beliefs and ideas of other people in the community, people could learn how diverse Frankfort really is and that diversity is beautiful, she said.
Mike Fitzpatrick and his wife are originally from Frankfort, moved back to town two years ago and have a serious interest in art. He said they own around 100 pieces of art, but his concern is the preservation of historic buildings in Frankfort.
“At the end of the day, the art of this community are the structures, and that’s what I want to see,” he said. “I would love to see on the Old Capitol a massive wall built strictly for artwork that could be recycled every year.”
Joanna Hay, Frankfort Public Art director, said her goal is for Frankfort to become the public art capital of Kentucky.
“If Berea can be the craft capital of Kentucky and Paducah can be the fine art capital of Kentucky, why can’t we be the public art capital of Kentucky?” Hay said. “So let’s push for artistic excellence. Supporting artists, local artists particularly. We want to see local artists working all the time.”
To that end, the Frank Public Art organization has partnered with the city and applied for a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, which would give the community funding to create a strategic plan for the arts for Franklin County, Hay said.
“That would pull all the stakeholders together to have these kinds of meetings where people can say what they want and don’t want,” she said. “We can make it (Frankfort) a real tourist attraction.”
Some people expressed concern that artists might paint murals of offensive subject matter, such as genitalia, or even murals of Hitler or other racially and socially insensitive material. They suggested creating a local government oversight committee to approve or deny subject matter for future murals.
“We’ve got to find some middle ground and I think the only way we can do that is to have some kind of reasonable, rational government oversight,” said Frankfort author Ray Peden. “We have got to make sure we don’t make Frankfort a carnival.”
At the end of the meeting, Cockley asked for volunteers to form a small, unofficial committee to get together with the planning and community development staff to work out some guidelines for the future of public murals.
“We need to stop focusing on the bad that could happen and focus on the good,” said Richard Rosen, expressing concern that people will take something that would be good for Frankfort tourism and businesses and find the worst-case scenario for it.