Art works with and through social movements. It informs; works to inspire; and just generally supports collective action. In our current digitally connected age it is easier than ever now to document and share the proliferation of art meant to protest, encourage, and criticize the current state of institutional racism in the United States and elsewhere. I snapped a picture with my phone on a walk earlier this week in front of the Station Museum. We are in a way fortunate that so much of this art can be preserved, perhaps in only a limited way, by cell phone cameras and drones. But the physical objects may be left without a good means of preservation. What will happen to all these sanctioned and unsanctioned murals on plywood and buildings?
Alex Brady has written a thoughtful piece for Salon thinking about some of these questions. In Oakland, California, a handful of organizations like Oakland’s Black Cultural Zone and others are working to preserve some of these panels by storing the mural panels when they have been taken down:
Alongside other Black-led organizations and Black artists, BCZ is working with Oakland Endeavors, Oakland Art Murmur, and the Oakland Museum to de-install panels and store them in facilities throughout the city. And while many museums throughout the country are making efforts to highlight African-American history, the Oakland Museum and other ally organizations are taking their orders from BCZ when it comes to the influx of plywood murals and other street art in the city.
“We wanted to set it up such that we [BCZ] could create the infrastructure because the institutions typically have the infrastructure,” [Randolph] Belle said.
The BCZ is neither curating nor collecting but is currently storing 20 de-installed panels and anticipating more. The group has an online form for businesses, developers, and landlords to identify murals and artwork, and to notify BCZ when the panels get taken down so that the group can track the work, safely store it, and contact the artist(s) about desired next steps.
Oakland Endeavors, one of the organizations working with BCZ (Endeavors also worked with Wolfe-Goldsmith on Oakland’s downtown Black Lives Matter street mural) is standing by to store more, along with the other partner organizations.
Eventually, BCZ anticipates cataloguing and storing hundreds of panels.
Of course because artists and those who view it are a diverse group, some do not even want the art preserved or preserved in an institutionalized way. That of course means much of this art will be lost or destroyed.
Another interesting angle to consider is that much of this art is reproducing many of the same ideas, themes, and images. They seem to me to be working to use the tragic deaths and murders of people of color to advance collective action and effect a more just and equitable society. That seems to be the real overarching goal, and preservation of the artwork does seem to be a secondary consideration. But the art speaks to the moment, and it would be a shame if we are not left with the physical reminders of this social movement. As more and more cities are making the long-delayed and sensible decision to remove the racist symbols of the confederacy, these murals have taken their place in many cities. There are BLM murals and symbols of hope and solidarity all over my city, Houston, as the last few handful of confederate monuments are slowly being removed.
One remedy for artists who create these murals with permission, and if they achieve the nebulous status of “recognized stature” as the Visual Artists Rights Act requires may be entitled to certain rights of integrity and attribution should the murals be threatened with intentional destruction or mutilation. Those remedies are taking on increasing importance as arts lawyers and street artists slowly litigate life into the idea that artists are entitled to certain important rights that follow the significant works of art they create.
- Alex Brady, What is the Fate of BLM Protest Art?, Salon, https://www.salon.com/2020/07/25/black-lives-matter-mural-art-preservation-oakland/ (last visited Aug. 13, 2020).
- Brittany Britto, Acres Homes Welcomes Two New “Black Lives Matter” Murals, HoustonChronicle.com, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Acres-Homes-welcomes-two-new-Black-Lives-15401961.php (last visited Aug. 13, 2020).
- Amelia Holowaty Krales, 33 Powerful Black Lives Matter Murals, The Verge, https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/5/21304985/black-lives-matter-murals-round-up-artists (last visited Aug. 13, 2020).
- Dylan McGuinness, Dowling Statue Will Go into Storage, Not Historic Site – for Now, HoustonChronicle.com, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Dowling-statue-will-go-into-storage-not-historic-15344773.php (last visited Aug. 13, 2020).