More public art is headed to Leesburg and, for the first time, it will be on private property.
On Tuesday night, the Town Council endorsed the creation of a pilot program to allow murals on commercial buildings. The council initially discussed whether to allow private property murals last year and, in July, passed a resolution creating an ad hoc committee to study the subject.
Councilman Ara Bagdasarian served as chairman of that committee, which also featured members of town staff and representatives from three town boards and commissions—the Board of Architectural Review, the Commission on Public Art, and the Economic Development Commission. Bagdasarian presented the council with the committee’s recommendations during Monday night’s work session.
Presently, murals are not permitted on private structures because they are considered signage. But, in moving the idea forward, council members hope to enhance commercial buildings in town, much in the same way the public art murals and installations that have sprung up throughout Leesburg over the years have become their own destinations.
Buildings in the H-1, or Old & Historic District, are excluded from consideration in the pilot program, as are residential buildings anywhere in town. Commercial structures within the town’s corporate limits outside of the H-1 will have to follow a process recommended by the ad hoc committee and endorsed by the council.
The process is similar to the one Leesburg follows for considering murals on public property, except there is one an additional step. First, a theme for the mural will be selected by the Commission on Public Art. Then, there will be a “call for walls,” Bagdasarian said, where commercial property owners may submit their interest in their building façade being considered. After the wall is chosen, a call for artists for the mural will be issued, and about a month later an art advisory panel, which will include the owner of the selected structure, will convene to select the mural. The Commission on Public Art will then review the selection before a recommendation goes to the Town Council, which has final approval for the project.
To avoid the conflict of the town regulating content on private property, Leesburg will lease the chosen wall for a nominal fee, at $100 per year, for a five-year lease term. The property owner would then have the option to renew the lease at the end of the term.
“Through the lease arrangement we are avoiding the whole thorny issue of having to regulate what happens on private property by the town leasing the wall. That’s what the call for walls does—it takes that wall and essentially makes it public property for the duration of the lease,” Town Attorney Christopher Spera said.
The theme for the pilot program is celebrate music in Leesburg, Bagdasarian said, and a call for walls is expected to be issued in April, with July eyed as the target for when the project will come before the council. The process will restart with the selection of a new theme every December, including this year.
Only one wall will be selected for the pilot program, but the council may determine annually how many walls can feature a theme-specific mural, Bagdasarian said.
Tuesday night, prior to the vote, Mayor Kelly Burk proposed several changes to the guidelines for the program, all of which were accepted by the council. Burk suggested that, in the event of the mural wall being damaged by a tree falling or some other act of Mother Nature, the town would be financially responsible for repairing the mural since it is the lessee of the space. However, she clarified later, the town would not be on the financial hook for repairing any damage to the building. Throughout the lease, the property owner would be responsible for maintaining the mural.
Burk also advocated the town being the financially responsible party for covering up the mural with paint after the expiration of the lease.
Finally, the chosen property owner would have veto power over whatever mural is selected. However, turning down a selected mural may make that property ineligible for the mural program for a period of time, a subject expected to be further clarified at a future council meeting.
The council voted 6-1 to approve the mural pilot program, with Councilman Neil Steinberg opposed. Steinberg expressed concerns about property owners, at the end of an already lengthy process, being able to turn down the mural design.