A mural painted on the East Broadway Avenue basement stairwell of the Cowan Building, without city approval, has been allowed to remain in place by the Bismarck Renaissance Zone Authority, who questioned whether the artwork met city criteria for the installation of public art.
In November, the Rejuvenation Place, 401 E. Broadway Ave., hired artist Bailey White to paint the stairwell, which is used as a “Hollywood exit” for clients who don’t want to use the main entrance. The artwork features celebrity portraits.
According to city ordinance, public art is not to be installed on any side of a building adjacent to public right-of-way. However, the entire mural is painted below the sidewalk grade and has limited visibility from the right-of-way.
“We weren’t aware of the regulation,” said Adam Berger, co-owner of the Rejuvenation Place. “We just figured it was our stairway.”
Because the artwork appears below the sidewalk grade, some authority members questioned if the mural truly is in the wrong.
“If they had come to us beforehand, I would’ve supported it,” said authority member Joe Fink, noting the mural isn’t highly visible from the public right-of-way.
Chairman Curt Walth, who cast a dissenting vote, said he was concerned about setting a precedence.
“My concern is we’re opening the door for other requests to come in,” he said.
Authority member George Keiser voted to have the mural painted over, as well.
“Ignorance is no excuse. There is an ordinance. To say, ‘Well, I didn’t know about it,’ doesn’t count, because then we’re going to have people doing whatever they want on their property and saying, ‘I didn’t know about that,’” he said. “That’s not the way government works. That’s not the way ordinances work.”
According to city officials, the public art ordinance is in place to ensure an appearance of uniformity and to prevent businesses from painting large murals of their logos on the sides of buildings, distracting traffic.
“I don’t think anyone intended to do harm,” said Josh Askvig, city commissioner. “Hopefully, it’s a learning tool.”
The Dakota West Arts Council, with assistance from the city’s community development department, has been working on creating a public arts policy for the past five years.
“We hope to get it out there to business owners, as well as local and regional artists, so they know when they come, especially downtown, that there are regulations and steps they have to go through,” said Eileen Walsh, executive director of the Dakota West Arts Council.
The authority approved the mural by a vote of 4-2 Thursday.