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Rainbow street mural causes controversy

Commissioners approve of sentiment, disappointed by lack of notification

July 2nd, 2020 7:05 PM

The rainbow street mural was painted in the early morning hours of July 1 on Madison Street. | Photo by Jill Wagner

By Maria Maxham

Mayor Rory Hoskins may have frustrated some elected village commissioners by sanctioning the rainbow painting project this week on Madison Street without seeking approval or even letting them know it was being done ahead of time.

By 2 a.m. on July 1, a group of artists had painted the median in front of Urban Pioneer Group in rainbow colors. The project was organized by Tom Kunkel of Urban Pioneer Group and completed with the approval of Hoskins, who was there for the midnight event.

But at least two of the commissioners didn't know about the project until the next day, when they saw photos of the painting on Facebook.

Commissioner of Public Property Jessica Voogd was the only commissioner notified ahead of time. Hoskins said he reached out to her as the commissioner responsible for public property to see what she thought.

In an interview, Voogd said she received a call from the mayor before the art was done, letting her know an idea to paint a pride street mural was "being floated around."

"I thought it was great," said Voogd. "It's a great way to bring positivity to the village." She said the project cost the village nothing (all the supplies were donated) and doesn't damage village property in any way.

"I don't necessarily think we have to vote on something like this that costs the village nothing and isn't destructive," Voogd said.

But Commissioners Ryan Nero and Joe Byrnes, who had not been notified of the project ahead of time, expressed their disappointment and frustration at the painting happening without their approval or at the very least their knowledge.

"I appreciate the fact that the village welcomes diversity," said Nero, who made it clear that he agrees with the sentiment behind the artwork. "What I don't appreciate is that the artwork was put in without following a formal process."

Nero brought up the fact that the village council regularly votes on hanging banners supporting nonprofit organizations and events. If they have to vote on temporary signage, shouldn't they also vote on a potentially permanent art installation?

Nero said that as the Commissioner of Streets and Public Improvements, he feels he should have at least been notified or involved on some level.

"What precedent does this set?" asked Nero. "When you commission artwork, what's appealing to one person might not be pleasing to someone else. This is a diverse community, and we should make a decision as a board based on that fact to make sure the art is enjoyed by all residents."

Concerns about maintenance and materials used might have been things the council could have considered, Nero said.

"We should all be working together," said Nero. "Let's follow the process."

Byrnes, too, said that although he approves completely with the message behind the art, he's not happy about the way it was done, without council notification or approval.

"I'm disappointed I wasn't notified," Byrnes said. "It would have been a good idea to let us know what was happening. There are five of us on the council, and all five of us should have been aware that this was going on."

If he'd been asked, he said he wouldn't have had a problem with it. If there was a vote, he'd have cast his vote in favor.

"I'm not a happy camper with things happening and we have to read about it in the paper or on Facebook," said Byrnes. "We're on the right track as a council. We have to stay away from petty stuff. We have to share information." He said he'd tell Hoskins this: "Don't block us out."

Hoskins, in an interview, defended his decision to act without village council approval.

"We do things often in the village that don't go to the council for approval," Hoskins said. He pointed to recent examples, such as the Meet Us at the Bridge event and a drive-in movie, sponsored by the Park District, being held at the Altenheim property on July 9. Those things, he said, didn't go to the council for approval.

"Things that don't necessitate a contractual obligation and are at no cost don't always require a vote," Hoskins said. Painting a mural on the street is akin to messages put up on the electronic billboard at the community center, he said. "Not everything has to be vetted."

Hoskins said that when Kunkel proposed the project, background information, including experience, was provided about the organizing artist. He reached out to Voogd as the Commissioner of Public Property, and she approved of the idea.

Hoskins added that there's no precedent in Forest Park for vetting public art. "If I thought it would generate controversy, I would have gone to the commissioners," said Hoskins.

Hoskins said that with about 15 artists and a few organizers, he was concerned about the crowd growing too big, so he didn't tell many people about it in the interest of safety and to make sure no COVID related guidelines were broken. Holding the event at midnight meant less people would be around on Madison Street, so less of a crowd would form.

"Maybe I could have given more people a heads up," said Hoskins, "but I didn't want a crowd to gather."

Commissioner Dan Novak did not respond to a request for comment from the Review.

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