Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Historic Commission Rejects Voting Rights Mural

Without debating content or artist, commission finds mural needs to wait for guidelines to be approved.

By - Aug 3rd, 2020 06:44 pm
Voting Rights are Human Rights (left), the Railway Exchange building. Images by Shepard Fairey, Stacey Williams-Ng.

Voting Rights are Human Rights (left), the Railway Exchange building. Images by Shepard Fairey, Stacey Williams-Ng.

The Historic Preservation Commission rejected a proposal Monday afternoon to paint a 10-story mural on the side of a building owned by one its own members.

The piece, entitled “Voting Rights are Human Rights,” was to be painted by artist Shepard Fairey on the south side of the 12-story Railway Exchange Building, 229 E. Wisconsin Ave., owned by Patti Keating Kahn. The plan, being coordinated by Stacey Williams-Ng‘s Wallpapered City firm, was to have the piece installed by the Democratic National Convention in two weeks.

But the commission unanimously rejected the piece, with Keating Kahn in abstention, not for its content, nor its author. “The actual artwork is irrelevant,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, noting the commission isn’t legally empowered to consider such things.

The rejection has more to do with a mural painted in July 2019 on W. Historic Mitchell St. without proper authorization and the commission’s delayed response. In October 2019, the commission debated retroactively approving the mural and pledged to come up with guidelines for painting murals on historically-protected buildings.

But those guidelines never came, until a subcommittee met last week to create a draft framework. The framework would allow Fairey’s voting rights mural if it was painted on removable panels and complied with certain size restrictions. It would prevent murals from being painted on previously unpainted masonry at Keating Kahn wants Fairey to do. The commission briefly discussed the framework on Monday, but took no action. The body held the matter pending a full report and public hearing.

With no guidelines, the commission balked at approving Keating Kahn’s request to have the mural painted on the south side of her building. “I would not do something to a building that is so significant to the city’s history that would be detrimental to its future,” said Keating Kahn, who owns two buildings downtown.

She said she selected the south facade because it was originally planned to be rebuilt when a second tower was built. This companion building to the 1899 tower never materialized and Keating Kahn said she’s left with two rough walls while she’s worked to restore the significant east and north facades. “This building is half of what is supposed to be.”

“We are concerned about possibly making precedent-setting decisions without those guidelines in place,” said the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance‘s newly-installed executive director Jeremy Ebersole. The executive director is not a commission member.

“I totally agree with you,” said Bauman. “It seems out of order to take up the application before the guidelines.”

“The merits of the project I believe are pretty terrific,” said commissioner Sally Peltz. But she said she couldn’t support moving the project forward today.

Architecture professor and commissioner Matt Jarosz said the commission would look “foolish” if it approved the project, and then adopted guidelines with different standards.

A letter signed by 130 people, including many local artists, objects to Fairey’s mural based on Fairey himself and asked for the approval to be postponed, a move that would effectively kill its installation.

The three-page letter cites a website that accuses Fairey of plagiarism and references his 2009 lawsuit, which ultimately led to criminal charges against Fairey for destroying evidence of the source image used for his 2008 Hope image in support of Barack Obama‘s Presidential campaign. Fairey pled guilty and made restitution by paying a fine and serving community service.

The letter also criticizes Milwaukee arts groups for support Fairey over local artists of color. “We find it troubling that our city’s arts institutions and funders would consider giving resources to a problematic white male artist who purports to represent [Black, indigenous and people of color] people, but has not reached out to Milwaukee’s BIPOC artists,” says the letter submitted by Erick Ledesma. Katie Avila Loughmiller is also a signatory of the letter and briefly spoke at the meeting.

The Fairey piece was to be funded by the Black Box Fund and had received the backing of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

“I don’t think we have ever had three digits of objection to any proposals before this body,” said commission staffer Tim Askin. Keating Kahn said it was irrelevant because the objections were over something the commission does not regulate. Bauman said it was a matter of fact that the submissions came, but yes, the commission could not consider them.

Keating Kahn said rejecting the work was losing an opportunity to bring an internationally-recognized artist to Milwaukee. Fairey’s mural is an enlarged version of one created as a series in partnership with photographer Steve Schapiro, who documented civil rights protests in the 1960s. Another image in the series, “American Rage,” was recently installed on the side of an office building in Seattle.

When Williams-Ng tried to speak for a second time before the commission voted, Bauman, the acting chair, cut her off. “If you think it’s inappropriate you’re free to file a legal action to challenge our actions today,” he said. Bauman had at various points also cut off other speakers that attempted to speak on the content of the mural.

A report from the commission staff opposed approving the mural unless it was painted on removable panels.

For more on the proposed mural, see our coverage from July.

Urban Milwaukee is a tenant in the Colby Abbot Building owned by the Kahn family.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us