Artists May Seek Compensation In Uptown Mural Dispute
An attorney who represents 11 artists who created the Uptown Normal mural say federal law requires their permission for it to be demolished—and that compensation may be enough to earn that consent.
William McGrath, a Chicago lawyer specializing in copyright law, told GLT he hopes to reach an agreement with the Town of Normal to resolve the dispute without resorting to a lawsuit.
“My clients don’t necessary want to stand in the way of progress. Our goal is to reach an amicable resolution here,” McGrath said. “You undertake litigation as a last resort.”
The mural has become a symbol in a larger debate about the $30 million Trail East project in Uptown Normal, led by developer Bush Construction. Normal officials tout the potential economic benefits of the project, which will bring more professionals into Uptown during the workweek.
Critics say the town is offering too much in tax breaks to Bush. Others say Uptown Normal will lose some of its history and charm if three Beaufort Street buildings are demolished to make room for Trail East, largely because the mural—a popular spot for photos and passers-by—will be leveled too.
"They have rights. And they haven't waived those rights."
The dispute over the mural hinges on a part of federal copyright law called the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). McGrath said his clients—11 of around 40 community artists who worked on the mural—have a legal right to protect their work from being intentionally destructed. The law affords this right to “work of a recognized stature”—a threshold that McGrath said the mural plainly meets.
“They have rights. And they haven’t waived those rights,” McGrath said.
McGrath said his clients include Natalie Wetzel, former owner of The Pod, which previously occupied the town-owned building on which the mural is painted. The mural, completed in 2011, was partly her idea—a creative solution to an eyesore problem on the side of her new business’ building.
McGrath said he notified the Town of Normal and Bush Construction via letter in October about the artists’ concerns. The town responded with a letter, but there hasn’t been a lot of communication since then, he said. The Normal Town Council voted this week to move ahead with Trail East.
The artists hope to reach a resolution with the town that will lead to them signing waivers allowing the demolition to proceed, McGrath said. They may seek compensation for their work, he said.
“My clients are willing to have discussions about ways the development plans could go forward while still preserving the mural,” McGrath wrote in the October letter. “If that cannot be done in a way that would preserve the integrity of the mural, my clients are each willing to sign a waiver of their VARA rights, but they are entitled to fair compensation for their relinquishment of these rights.”
If no agreement is reached, the artists may sue and ask a judge to decide whether VARA applies to the mural, McGrath said.
If the mural can’t be demolished, the Town of Normal may consider moving it. Town officials said that could cost upwards of $81,560, plus transportation costs and finding a new home for it. Town officials also said they may sue their former tenant to make them pay for it.
“The tenants who occupied the space had a signed lease agreement indemnifying the town under certain conditions, and we would invoke the indemnification clause and seek reimbursement if we are required to move it,” Normal City Manager Pam Reece told GLT.
She also said the former tenant also owes the town money dating from the time of the lease. McGrath disputes that.
“As for the town’s claim that The Pod owed money under the lease, that is wrong. There is no money due whatsoever,” McGrath said via email.
Regardless, McGrath said he doesn’t think the mural can be safely moved.
“If it could be moved realistically, I think my clients would be very happy with that,” McGrath said. “Realistically, I don’t see how the wall could be moved.”
Town of Normal officials say “the mural was organized exclusively by the tenant; it was not a town project,” according to a report prepared for the Town Council. McGrath said Wetzel had “explicit permission” from the town back in 2011 when the mural was created.
“They consented to the creation of this,” he said.
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