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Tulsa's Arts Commission supports keeping 'Black Lives Matter' mural, saying it's a work of public art

Tulsa's Arts Commission supports keeping 'Black Lives Matter' mural, saying it's a work of public art

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Black Lives Matter Mural

An aerial view of the Greenwood District in Tulsa shows the “Black Lives Matter” mural on Greenwood Avenue near Archer Street.

Aerial view of the Black Lives Matter Mural on Greenwood

The “Black Lives Matter” street mural is public art and should stay, the Arts Commission of the city of Tulsa says.

It is sending that message to Mayor G.T. Bynum and the City Council on Tuesday. The commission members, the majority of whom are white, voted to send a letter voicing their support for the mural on Greenwood Avenue.

“I share the view that this is a powerful and important piece of art and expression, maybe among the most important pieces of art in our community’s history, particularly in the place that it has been painted and the time that it has been painted,” Ken Levit said.

Levit, a commission member and executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, said during a Monday meeting of the Arts Commission that he urges the city to adopt the mural into the city’s collection of public art.

The Arts Commission is the city government’s foremost authority on public art. However, its members said whether to accept the mural as a work of public art will ultimately come down to city councilors.

“Because the mission of the Arts Commission of the City of Tulsa is to stimulate superior aesthetic quality throughout the City and to emphasize positive measures for the pursuit of beauty, we recommend the retention of the mural where it stands today,” the letter states. “The inscription provides an aesthetically pleasing, positive message in an area that has experienced unimaginable adversity.”

On the eve of Juneteenth, the June 19 celebration of the freeing of slaves, a group of artists, without city permission, painted the words “Black Lives Matter” in big, bold letters on Greenwood Avenue. Levit said during the meeting that the mural was a gift of public art and that the city should accept it.

The site of the painting is also the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And it’s where advocates are preparing for the centennial of the massacre on May 31-June 1, 2021. Part of that preparation is the search for mass or unmarked graves of victims.

The message is also closely linked with other murals across the United States. Advocates for racial justice and equality have been painting streets with the message following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Mark Swiney, a city attorney who attended the Arts Commission’s virtual meeting, reiterated to commission members the position of the city’s Legal Department. He said there was concern that it makes it possible that “every street in the city would become a billboard.”

Commission member Dan Alaback cast the lone dissenting vote on whether to send the letter.

“I’m in favor of the message,” he said. “I was just not in favor of the process of how it was done.”

Swiney also noted that the mural was painted potentially in violation of several laws, including vandalism ordinances and regulations regarding street and highway safety.

The mural has been the center of public controversy since Tulsa County Republican Party Chairman Bob Jack inquired about how other residents could get their own street art. Jack wrote a letter to City Councilor Ben Kimbro and the Mayor’s Office seeking information on the application process for painting a sign on the street.

“A group has approached me with a plan to paint on a city street in large letters “BACK THE BLUE” and “BABY LIVES MATTER,” Jack wrote. “As you are aware, the city did not intervene in the painting of “BLACK LIVE(S) MATTER” on Greenwood, just north of Archer, and the group is requesting the same right to voice their opinion.”

Sometime this weekend, the mural on Greenwood Avenue was defaced with a thin, splattered line of blue paint. Advocates for the mural repainted it Sunday.

Several commission members raised concerns about others wanting to paint messages in similar fashion, indirectly referencing Jack’s inquiries. Alaback said after the meeting that the Arts Commission would have to “just take them as they come.”

Commission Chair Holly Becker, who penned the letter, said they ought not to debate the merit of other messages while weighing the “Black Lives Matter” mural. Proposals for similar murals should be taken on a “case-by-case basis,” she said.

Other commission members said the prospect of having conversations on other messages should not prevent discussion on retaining the existing mural.

Gallery: Volunteers repaint Black Lives Matter mural that was vandalized

Harrison Grimwood 918-581-8369


Twitter: @grimwood_hmg


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