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Columbus Needs to Better Care for Its Arts Scene

Taijuan Moorman Taijuan Moorman Columbus Needs to Better Care for Its Arts SceneFrom left, Diane Nance, Mandi Caskey, Matthew Mohr, Hakim Callwood and Adam Herman in a panel discussion during The Big Table, Aug. 28, 2019. Photo by Callie King, via the Franklinton Arts District Facebook page.
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On August 28, the Columbus Foundation held its annual Big Table event, facilitating a day of community gatherings and conversations. Around Columbus, community members hosted and participated in discussions on the targeted issues and ideas that affect our city.

A Big Table conversation held by Wild Goose Creative, 934 Gallery, 400 Square and the Franklinton Arts District focused on public-facing art. “Commercial Use of Public Art and its Future in Columbus” was moderated by Franklinton Arts District President Adam Herman, and featured a panel of artists — Mandi Caskey, Matthew Mohr and Hakim Callwood — as well as Diane Nance, former vice president for programs at the Greater Columbus Arts Council and current chair of the Columbus Art Commission.

The discussion varied, especially once audience members got to jump in the conversation, but generally landed on a few topics: the value of public-facing art in a communal sense, public-facing art being used by businesses without permission or credit, and protecting artists’ work from idea to completion, and beyond.

Some of the issues brought up have been covered by CU in the past, but from a much smaller perspective and without taking a step back to see what the big, public-facing picture truly means for Columbus.

Protecting Artists’ Work and Giving Credit

Public-facing art is unique from other mediums in that it stands on its own, often without an unmistakable way to identify the artist. And in the digital age, public-facing art means a lot of social media posts taken by people who don’t know or understand the value of what a simple tag or mention means to an artist. 

There were a few ideas thrown around at The Big Table to better help people in Columbus get to know the artists behind the works they admire. Tech solutions like being able to geotag an artist, which would allow a photo to be tagged with information based on its location, were suggested.

Another suggestion included creating a marketing campaign to encourage residents to seek out the artist’s information. All seem like worthy efforts, but the biggest takeaway was that public art, in this case, was more than encouraged to be shared, but with the proper attribution, preferably.

That is one side, the other is businesses using public-facing art without permission to market a campaign or make a direct profit, which would be frowned upon — but would artists have any legal basis?

The Cost to Legally Protect Work

The panel discussed a recent case between automaker Mercedes-Benz and Detroit-area artists whose public-facing mural was used in an ad campaign by the company. The case opened the conversation on how artists can legally protect their work.

An example of some form of legal protection was provided by Nance, who made mention of The City of Columbus’ copyright clause for artists and the work they provide to the City. In general, the clause determines that artists have full control over the redistribution of their work, including “copies, reproductions, or derivations,” except for redistribution by the City for non-commercial purposes. This could be an example of the kind of contracts artists could make with Columbus businesses once hired to create murals and other public-facing art.

However, particularly of note in this clause is the stated fair use of public-facing art, which says that its location in a public space makes “its incidental appearance or use in photographs, video, films or events using said space” non-commercial use. So if artists are hired by the City, and a photo of the artists’ work is being sold by another party, one could argue its fair use.

This area of the clause is similar to a 1990 federal law that gives copyright protection to architectural designs, with exception given to photographs and paintings of the outside of said designs when in public spaces. This allows a gray area where public-facing art may or may not be protected by copyright because of its visibility to the public, and artists could win or lose a case based on a court’s whim.

So artists aren’t guaranteed protection, and when considering the financial strain a legal battle would be for a Columbus artist, the odds seem stacked against them.

Community and Businesses

Garnering such a legal battle could be expected of a multimillion-dollar company, but when the conversation moved to small-businesses using the work of artists, Caskey and Callwood, in particular, were much more open to the idea of creating some sort of potential partnership.

“They’re a business like me,” said Callwood.

Callwood and Caskey generally agreed that small businesses should be looked at as part of the larger Columbus community, and therefore could use art much more freely. Which isn’t isn’t to say businesses aren’t guilty of the very same behaviors of individuals, i.e. posting public art on social media to promote their business, without giving the proper credit.

It’s easy to take the public art you pass by every day for granted because it essentially becomes a part of the building, business, or neighborhood it exists in. But very quickly, this taken for grantedness can become akin to a larger culture of undervaluing artists and what they provide to local communities.

The Value of Public Art

One key part of public-facing art’s value is its ability to provide a sense of place and community.

In the last few years, Columbus has seen how public-facing art affects local communities in several different ways: from developers using public art to attract tenants and relate to a rapidly developing neighborhood, to a changing neighborhood reflected in a revamped mural. We’ve also seen developers — likely outsiders unaware of the mural’s value within the community — demolish public art without notice. Each story exhibits a different value attributed to public art — from financial and intangible value to little value at all.

The latter is particularly alarming.

Non-artists in the Big Table discussion, including Josh Lapp of Designing Local, expressed the need to advocate for artists when they’re not in the room. Lapp spoke of having to explain to developers that paying artists “in publicity” was not acceptable, and of having to advocate for better pay. In meetings with developers and businesses, he said, it’s important to make clear the value of public art. Having artists create murals is not a favor to them, to be paid in publicity or what have you.

And artists in the room expressed the need to not undervalue their work. Doing mural work, or any kind of art, for free or only a small fee sets an unhealthy precedent of undervaluing art and artists.

It’s time for Columbus as a whole to hold its arts scene in higher regard. More than serving as bait to young professionals, more than helping the newest fast-casual restaurant chain blend into the Short North, more than something that can be disregarded or weaponized in the name of development, public art gives a city life, character and freedom.

One of the major points that Caskey made throughout this conversation was that the Columbus art scene should have a presence and not be just a subsect of Columbus culture. Arguably, we’re seeing that in the embracing by local developers and businesses, which, to be clear, is a great thing regardless of the motivation. But what’s needed is a collective buy-in to the value our art scene has, from city government, businesses, residents and artists alike.

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