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Judge: Mural Dispute Between 'Friends' Can Be Worked Out

Uptown Mural
The Town of Normal and Bush Construction want to demolish three buildings—including the mural's current home—along Beaufort Street to make room for the $30 million Trail East development. The town plans to move the mural to an unknown new location.";s:

A federal judge on Monday said he wants to know more about where the Uptown Normal mural might be moved—and whether it will remain publicly visible—before deciding whether to delay the start of construction at the Trail East site.

Thirteen mural artists asked for that delay, fearing that Trail East construction—and demolition of the mural—was imminent. But the Town of Normal says demolition is not scheduled to begin until July at the earliest, and that the mural will be moved, not destroyed.

"I sense this is not a dispute among enemies but among friends who have different perspectives about what to do."

Both sides presented arguments Monday in front of U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade in Peoria. He delayed his decision on whether to grant the artists the temporary restraining order they sought. Instead, he asked both sides to spend the next week trying to reach a compromise on where the mural will end up after it’s moved.

“I sense this is not a dispute among enemies but among friends who have different perspectives about what to do,” McDade said.

The legal dispute over the mural initially focused on whether it would be saved when the $30 million Trail East is built; it’s now shifted to where the mural will be moved, and who will pay the $100,000 to do it.

Attorney Bill McGrath, who represents 13 of the 30+ artists who painted the mural in 2011, said they want assurances it won’t be put in storage, hidden from public view.

“They haven’t said where or when it’s going to be moved. There’s no schedule or plan at this point,” McGrath said. “This could be a very positive outcome, but we just don’t know.”

Attorney Greg Smith, representing the Town of Normal, told the judge that a detailed demolition and construction timetable for Trail East is not yet available. It’s tentatively scheduled to begin in July, Smith said, but that depends in part on how long it takes to acquire the steel frame that will be used to secure the mural before it’s hoisted away. Smith said the town has already signed an agreement with Morton-based Otto Baum to move the mural.

Smith denied that the artists have any say as to where the mural ends up. He said the federal copyright law at the center of the lawsuit, called the Visual Artists Rights Act, does not guarantee artists any say as to where protected artwork is moved.

“That is not a recognized federal right,” Smith said. “The case law gives the town the right to put it wherever we like.”

The judge asked Smith: Does that mean you can stash it away from public view?

Yes, if the town wanted to, Smith replied. But “I’m not suggesting the town plans to put it in storage in perpetuity,” he said. The plan is for the mural to be placed in temporary town-owned storage until a request for proposals (RFP) is issued to find it a permanent home. A private entity or nonprofit could be its ultimate caretaker, Smith said, but the Normal Town Council will decide that.

McDade said repeatedly that he considered both sides of the lawsuit to be “friends” who should all want the mural to be seen. His questions focused on what the town planned to do with the mural long-term. He said he wanted more clarity on that before ruling on the restraining-order request.

“I have to say I’m a little surprised by the town’s position on this point,” McDade said.

A new hearing is set for May 20. McDade encouraged both sides to meet and discuss a proposed order for him to sign outlining a process for selecting a new home for the mural.

“Between friends, communication is vital,” McDade said.

The mural was organized and painted in 2011 in part by Natalie Wetzel, who was renting town-owned 104 E. Beaufort Street for her shop, The Pod. Town officials have said they may sue the former owners of the Pod to make them pay for the mural’s relocation.

Bush Construction, also a defendant in the lawsuit, did not have an attorney at Monday's hearing.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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