Thirteen of the artists who created the Uptown Normal mural have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Town of Normal and a developer from demolishing their work.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, claims federal copyright law doesn’t allow the town and developer Bush Construction to destroy the mural without the artists’ consent.
“The planned destruction of the artworks on the building is being undertaken knowingly over the objection of the plaintiffs and without regard to the iconic status of the artworks or the plaintiffs’ rights and interest in preserving the integrity of the artworks,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the “destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification” of the mural, and to award damages to the artists for their financial losses and “for the damage to their honor and reputation.”
The dispute hinges on a part of federal copyright law called the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). William McGrath, a Chicago lawyer who represents the 13 artists, said his clients 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.
McGrath said he notified the Town of Normal and Bush Construction via letter in October 2018 about the artists’ concerns. Settlement talks were underway—McGrath said the artists were seeking compensation—but they apparently stalled.
"I'm not saying (settlement talks) are over. But we haven't made progress," McGrath said Friday.
City Manager Pam Reece said Friday the town was still evaluating the lawsuit and "will appropriately defend the Town’s position to move forward with this major economic development project, which consists of a developer investing over $30 million in Uptown—providing jobs, customers and outside investors into our community and supporting local businesses.
Also Friday, the town removed a comment posted from its official account on GLT's Facebook post for this story. The comment said:
"How does it cause 'damage to their honor and reputation' when the majority of the people who take a picture in front of it have no idea who the artists are, nor do they give them credit in many pictures? ... Shouldn't we be focusing on some type of economic progression, or anything better than giving the town hell over a painting? like someone already stated buildings are impermanent, and 'giving hell' does no good for anyone and doesn't get us anywhere."
The town later said the comment was "erroneously" posted without authorization and that the town is handling the matter internally.
Earlier today, a Town comment was posted in response to a @WGLTNews article about the Uptown mural on Facebook. This comment was made without Town authorization and in error. We apologize, and we are handling the situation internally.
— Town of Normal (@NormalILL) April 26, 2019
The town and Bush Construction want to demolish three buildings—and the attached mural—along Beaufort Street to make room for the $30 million Trail East development.
The mural has become a symbol in a larger debate about the project. 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 the buildings are demolished, largely because the mural—a popular spot for photos and passers-by—will be leveled too.
The lawsuit says Natalie Wetzel obtained permission from the town in 2011 to recruit artists and put the mural on the unsightly brick wall. Wetzel was the owner of a business, called The Pod, that was renting town-owned storefront space inside the adjoining building.
The plaintiffs are identified as Janean Baird, Lianna Bankord, Elizabeth Beran, Erin Burnison, Brent Goken, Dick Goken, Ralston Scott Jones, Ed Madison, Brad Mosby, Lizbeth Ogiela-Scheck, Blair Valentine, Natalie Wetzel, and Savannah Wetzel.
If the mural can’t be demolished, the Town of Normal has considered 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,” Reece said in January.
McGrath has said he doesn’t think the mural can be safely moved.
Bush Construction Vice President of Project Development Bryce Henderson declined to comment Friday.
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