Saturday, October 01, 2005

Does Clear Channel Hate Public Art?

What is going on with Clear Channel and murals?

Until this year there were severe restrictions on painting community murals (every mural over 200 sq ft. had to apply for a waiver- at a cost of $1400- way more than most neighborhood groups can raise). In December 2004, Portland's City Council passed a public art exemption to the existing (and restrictive) sign code. That legislation was necesary due to earlier court decisions arising out of litigation with AK Media (primarily a billboard company and later absorbed by Clear Channel, the multimedia, multinational corporation).

The City's newly crafted Public Art Murals Program, to be administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), included $50,000 to award funds and give "approval" to community-based mural projects. For fiscal year 2005-2006 an additional $50,0o0 was made available in the Portland City Budget. So far, only about five mural projects have been given grants and the OK to do neighborhood murals. While flawed (previously a mural could be easily painted, and without much red-tape), this new program at least seemed to offer a way out of the legal impasse created by Clear Channel's lawsuit.

However, even this small accommodation proved to be galling to the sign company.

In June 2005, Clear Channel filed legal paperwork (reactivating the suit that had been in appeal) complaining that the new mural program is unconstitutional because the City is continuing to "favor art" over other types of wall signs.

If you have visited Portland, OR- you might have observed that (unlike other cities with healthy mural programs) there is no overwhelming presence of murals, instead, public art is practically nonexistent when compared to the amount of square footage devoted to advertising signs (including many impossible-to-miss building-sized "wall wraps").

The really odd thing is that the new mural program allows even Clear Channel to apply for "approval" for its commercial signs, as long as they fit certain criteria (original, hand-done, etc.). Though the company has yet to submit a design for the arts council's consideration. Perhaps the very idea that the City could want to encourage community creativity through visual art is a problem for this media corporation.

Clear Channel owns more than 500 billboards in the Portland metro area.

Since at least 1998 they have been suing the City over Portland's public art policy. Although CC has been unsuccessful in challenging the size and placement restrictions for billboards and other signs, it did succeed in producing an uncomfortable situation that resulted in a virtual halt to community murals for nearly seven years.

Now, less than six months after the RACC mural program was put into effect, Clear Channel is again suing the City- claiming that it has been treated unconstitutionally.

A trial to settle the matter is set for March 2006 before Judge Michael Marcus in the Multnomah County Court. Artists fear that an injunction to stop the Mural Program could result, with no other remedy to protect artistic expression in sight.

Once again, it could become illegal to paint a mural in the City of Portland.


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