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Banner elicits public art talk

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At their April 20 meeting, members of Village Council began a discussion on developing a Village policy on public art.

Council members Lori Askeland, Kathryn Van der Heiden, Karen Wintrow and John Booth were present. Absent was Council President Judith Hempfling.

Prompting the discussion was a complaint the Village received about one of the banners currently displayed in the Yellow Springs Banner Festival downtown. A local person complained that the banner on Short Street that shows President Obama in a Superman costume was offensive because it made a political endorsement and should be removed.

In a presentation to Council on the topic, Village Solicitor John Chambers stated that the Village needs a clear policy on displaying the banners, which it currently does not have. He also recommended that all of the banners come down as soon as possible, citing possible copyright infringement of the Superman image.

Council charged Village Manager Mark Cundiff with drafting a policy on the banners. However, they did not take action on removing the banners, which have been displayed for about three weeks. Most years, the banners have stayed up for six weeks, according to festival organizer Maxine Skuba.

“One of the great things about the banner festival is that there are no themes and no rules,” Skuba said to Council about the event, which is more than 20 years old. Local artists contribute original banners, with the only stipulations that banners not include advertising or obscenities and that they be the correct size, she said.

“So far, it’s worked,” she said of the lack of regulation. The festival is funded by a small grant from the Yellow Springs Arts Council.

In a presentation to Council, Chambers stated that the Village needs a clear and consistent policy regarding the display of banners on Village-owned poles. Banners in the right of way are considered signs, Chambers said, and the Village is prohibited from regulating signs based on content. Council needs to understand that if the Village okays the display of political banners, that all political banners must be allowed, he said.

“The Village has a long history of supporting public art, and we need to make sure we have policies that allow that support of public art to continue,” he said, stating that the policy adopted needs to be “thought through and defendable.”

The Obama banner seemed designed to instigate conversation, Chambers said, stating that, “I commend the artist. The intent was to generate discussion. Done.”

But like all works of art, the Obama banner can be interpreted in many different ways, according to Council member Lori Askeland, who said the Superman image could be seen as mocking Obama and his supporters just as well as promoting them.

“It does not constitute an endorsement on its face,” she said.

Askeland urged Council to not “err on the side of caution,” but rather to accept that public arts projects may generate controversy.

“We’re an arts town,” she said.

But if the Village chooses to be open to political statements, it could open the door to statements deemed offensive by most, according to Karen Wintrow, who gave a swastika as an example.

“I realize we’re open to that if we’re open to art being controversial,” Askeland said.

In an interview on Tuesday, local artist Lisa Wolters, who created the Obama banner, said that her intention in creating the banner was to create a dialogue about many Americans’ idolization of Obama to the detriment of taking personal responsibility.

“We have created a fictional character in our minds and we expect him to fix every problem,” she said. “But what is our role as individuals in making changes?”

Council will revisit the issue when Cundiff submits a draft policy on public art for Council members to consider.

Other items from the April 20 Council meeting will be covered in next week’s News.

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