After a months-long process of trying to get a wall mural in honor of the centennial anniversary of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment approved in the historic district in Nolensville, town officials did not pass a request from a business owner to paint an exterior wall of his building.
DMA-Events, a nonprofit organization that brings public art to communities in Tennessee, was set to partner with The Painted Dragonfly in Nolensville for the nonprofit’s Walls for Women project, an initiative meant to promote public art created by women in honor of the 100th year of women’s suffrage in Tennessee.
Ross Muirhead, who is on the economic development committee in Nolensville, said he thought a mural would be a great way to bring people into the town and promote surrounding businesses.
“Our town is a small town. We don’t have the resources that Franklin or Brentwood has,” he said. “So, it was just like, what can we do as a small town that could help our town and have the most impact? And that’s when I thought a piece of art, some paint. It’s relatively low cost, so you do a mural, and you can have such a huge impact on the businesses.”
DMA-Events became a partner in the pursuit of this effort, and they had a Nolensville business on board to dedicate one of its walls to the mural, but just before the decision went before the Nolensville Board of Mayor and Alderman to produce funding for the project — $7,500 was needed — the business backed out, and the board did not approve the request for funding.
Muirhead, with the help of local resident Debbie Brown, launched a Kickstarter campaign, and 93 people in the community contributed a total of $11,466, well above the goal of $7,500. Muirhead said the leftover funds would be donated to Round Up for Nolensville, which allows customers at certain businesses to round their purchases up to the nearest even-dollar amount to support the organization’s provision of necessities for local residents in need, including food, clothing, medical expenses and more.
After the first business backed out, The Painted Dragonfly offered one of its walls. Marc Soble, the property owner, then filed a COA request to the Nolensville Historic Zoning Commission to paint the mural on the wall.
“I thought it would be a good thing for the town. I want to do what makes as many people happy as possible,” Soble said to the commission in a meeting on June 25.
Soble said he has seen many in the community voice their excitement about the mural, but he has also seen comments that the proposed design lacks significant connection to the town.
The town’s board of mayor and aldermen and historic zoning commission both debated the mural’s proposed content. Some BOMA members shared they would like to have more control over the content, but that raised a debate about First Amendment rights.
Town staff said the board should consider historic design standards in the Nolensville Zoning Ordinance, which do not address murals, in addition to several items from the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation. The standards presented to the commission for consideration read as follows:
“The historic character of the property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.
“Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.
“Most properties change over time; those changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right shall be retained and preserved.
“New additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
“New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.”
Jeanne Boutilier, who sits on the historic zoning commission, said while the town cannot control the content, there are other things they can control.
“We can’t regulate content, but we can certainly regulate other aspects — the scale,” she said. “If it’s an entire side of the building, well, then it does become an architectural alteration as opposed to a mural. There’s just a lot to consider.”
Scott van Velsor, a founder of DMA-Events, said he believes that art should not be controlled.
“(Art) is so fundamental to being an American — the ability to express yourself,” he said. “I have never seen a single rule written that gives the government the ability to choose what is art and what is not art and what’s appropriate and what is not.”
Ultimately, after some expressed their concern that the proposed mural did not fit with the town’s historic district and the architectural features of the building, the commission denied the COA request. Soble said he believes the commission’s decision came down to aesthetics, and while there are a couple ways he could try again to get a mural approved, he thinks “the issue is probably just dead.”
Josh Hughes, chairman of the historic zoning commission, said he hopes the town can update its historic guidelines to address murals.
“I think we’ll want to move to next steps in trying to help eliminate any frustration in future reference and, I think, hopefully get a mural in the historic district that we feel is appropriate,” he said.