City leaders approve library mural; contract to return to commission for review

photo by: Contributed rendering

This rendering shows a proposed mural depicting stories of local women of color as it would appear on the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

After more than three hours of public comment, city leaders voted to move forward with a proposal to add a mural to the exterior of the public library, but with a caveat that a contract with the lead artist return to them for review.

The commission voted, 4-1, with Mayor Stuart Boley dissenting, to accept a request from artist group Womxn of Color to donate and install the mural on the ground-level concrete wall of the library. As part of the motion, the commission also authorized the city manager to create an agreement with the lead artist, which will cover aspects such as maintenance of the mural, which will be returned to the commission for approval on Aug. 7.

The artist team initially proposed that the mural be painted on the parking garage next to the library, but later said that there are technical issues with that surface and that they would like to put the mural on the library itself. Lead artist Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick told the commission that putting the mural on the library itself is important to the project’s goal.

“We are reshaping societal norms of who gets to tell history and how the history is told,” Fiorella Fitzpatrick said. Instead of painting the mural on panels that would be attached to the library, as some have suggested, Fiorella Fitzpatrick asked that the city let the group paint directly on the base of the library.

But some members of the public, advisory board members and those involved with the library had concerns about adding a mural to the library itself. The Historic Resources Commission reviewed and recommended the project, but noted that the board-formed concrete of the base of the library is “character-defining” and that the inappropriate removal of the mural has the potential to cause irreversible damage to that feature of the library.

Based on that recommendation, the library board of trustees asked that the mural be painted on panels instead to protect the board-formed concrete. Library Board of Trustees Chair Kevan Vick also said that, while the board fully supports the concept of the project, the decision could set a precedent.

“I think (our recommendation) was generic and not specific to this request and not specific to this group,” Vick said. “It anticipates if the decision is made to put a mural on the library, there will be many requests and there will be many murals. That said, we took a deep dive and tried to really understand what it means for the library.”

City Commission Meeting 07/10/18

Womxn of Color began gathering historical and present-day stories of local women of color last year to incorporate into the mural design. Some of those working on the project expressed concern that putting the mural on panels would make it less permanent and less significant.

“We want to be able to paint on the concrete to ensure that these stories always have a home, and make a statement that Lawrence honors their women of color just like they do John Brown and their Jayhawks,” said Leah Evans, one of the designers of the mural.

The public previously voted to fund a $19 million renovation of the library, and the library’s design has won architectural awards and national attention. Some members of the public, and the architect group behind the library’s design, Gould Evans, asked that there be more public input about the proposal to paint directly on the library.

A letter from Gould Evans stated that the contrast between the neutral color of the library’s foundation and the vibrant orange of the terracotta on the rest of the building was key to its design. The letter also states that the design of the library was conducted over several years with the engagement of community stakeholders and the extensive involvement of artist collaborators, and that if the city chooses to allow a mural on the exterior walls, their hope is that a similar community stakeholder engagement effort be made.

“This will ensure that the design solution enhances the beauty of the library and is detailed in a lasting manner that will not damage the building itself,” the letter states.

Commissioners all expressed support for the project, but had some concerns about a lack of detail and definitions in the agreement with the artists, which covers what their responsibility will be should the mural be damaged or require maintenance. Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the contract needed to be more detailed if the city wants to ensure that the mural will be maintained for years to come.

Boley said that he thinks all people, especially children, need to feel welcome and represented at the library.

“We need to expand our understanding of history to include everyone, and this is what the project is about — it’s women of color’s stories that our community needs to hear,” Boley said. “This has been a powerful storytelling evening in our commission chambers, and I appreciate the sharing that has taken place.”

But Boley also said he didn’t think he was in a position to judge whether some of the conditions stipulated by another board that reviewed the proposal had been met. Last month, the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission voted unanimously to recommend the mural, but also asked the artist team to provide a detailed budget listing expenses and maintenance plans for the mural, as required by the donated art guidelines. The team was also asked to provide the letters of support it has received from neighborhood and community groups and a letter from the architecture firm that designed the library.

The group’s response to the LCAC request was provided to the commission, and Boley suggested that the LCAC have a chance to review that information before the commission decides.

Commissioner Leslie Soden said that she thinks supporting the mural should be a priority of the commission.

“I think leading by example and elevating other people, especially people of color, is probably one of the higher priorities,” Soden said.

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