The charming little mural of bees, birds and frogs on the front of the Ashland Book Exchange has gotten a reprieve from its ordered demise, with 48 hours to go.
Under the city’s sign code, the mural was considered a promotional “sign” unless the business owner got it declared “public art” by the city’s new Public Arts Commission. The new bookstore owner, Roy Laird, declined to make the application, so he was told it had to be painted over by Aug. 15.
After customers complained, city planning assistant Michael Piña on Wednesday granted Laird an extension until the September meeting of the public arts body — or until all the players can get on the same page about what’s going to happen with the mural, said Laird.
“It’s really loosened up since this became public,” said Laird, with a laugh. “I’ve had people come in here and tell me that if I try to paint it, they will stand in front of it.”
Laird says Piña, in a cordial phone talk Wednesday, detailed how to proceed in getting the mural through the Public Arts Commission, then the City Council. After that, said Laird, there would have to be a “site review,” which could cost $1,000.
Laird said there are two main hurdles — the agreement by the landlord to enter into the process to make it public art and the expense of paying for the site review. Laird said he can’t and won’t pay that much.
“I’m not putting the city down,” said Laird, “but if we get to that $1,000, we’ll just have to figure that out. I can’t do it.”
Laird said the mural, according to the previous store owner, has been there for at least a decade and, since the PAC was set up to deal with new public art proposals, it shouldn't be involved. Under the new rules, if the owner agrees to make it public art, the city would have control over it.
“I don’t really own this art. It was already there,” Laird said.
In an email Wednesday, Laird added, “It’s already public art. If it’s preserved, it will be because of customers and citizens who have spoken up to keep what they feel is theirs ... I guess the underlying issue is how to accomplish this without excessive complications and burdens on those involved, to the point of making it impractical.”
Laird lauded city staff, saying, “This is the city at its best. I felt (Piña) was attempting to facilitate the process regardless of what the outcome might be, rather than digging in by stating the letter of the law and leaving me to figure out how to navigate this very involved process, and I have to say the process is very complicated, time-consuming and expensive.”
Laird bought the business in May and wanted to put up a new awning, with his business name on it twice. That was the limit for signs, according to code, so the city told Laird to paint over the mural, since it was a sign rather than art. He got an extension on the mural and was allowed to proceed with the awning.
The arts commission invited him to apply for public art status at its meeting scheduled for Aug. 15, but, citing the cost and demands of running a new business, Laird declined.
“This little mural is really beginning to amount to something,” said Laird, adding that if the building owner declines to go into the public arts process, “that’s the end of it.”
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.