The Town of Normal has pushed back against the 13 artists who’ve sued over the Uptown mural, claiming federal copyright law doesn’t protect them because their artwork can be safely moved.
In a response filed Friday, the town says it’s lined up experts in art and historic-building restoration and building relocation to move the mural to an unspecified location. It will cost $100,000 and be done over one to five days as part of demolition of the Beaufort Street building to which it’s attached. Experts would reinforce the mural in a steel frame and lift it out onto dollies for transportation, the town’s attorneys wrote.
The 13 artists filed their federal lawsuit last month and are now asking a judge for a temporary restraining order to stop the mural being destroyed or altered. They claim a part of federal copyright law called the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) doesn’t allow the town and Trail East developer Bush Construction to destroy the mural without the artists’ consent because it’s a “work of recognized stature.”
In Friday’s 71-page response, Town Attorney Brian Day and outside counsel Caitlyn Culbertson say that relocating the mural is not a VARA violation.
“The town is not intentionally or recklessly destroying or modifying the mural, and wants to save it,” they wrote. “Nothing in VARA gives the plaintiffs the right to demand how or where the mural should be displayed.”
Bill McGrath, an attorney for the 13 artists, says he doesn’t think the mural can be safely moved.
The town and Bush 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 argues that an injunction to stop or slow demolition would be a “disservice” to the public. It says the five-story Trail East project on the northeast arc of the circle will bring more than 300 jobs to Uptown.
“Any hardship suffered by the (artists) would be dwarfed by the hardships suffered by the community in the potential loss of a significant development project in the town’s central business district,” the town’s attorneys wrote.
The mural was painted in 2011 by at least 30 community artists. It was organized in part by Natalie Wetzel, who was renting 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. Friday’s response includes a 2011 lease proposal that identifies those owners as Natalie and Doug Wetzel and Bekah Berry. Wetzel is one of the 13 artists who filed the original lawsuit April 24. Berry is not one of the plaintiffs.
In Friday’s response, the town says that Wetzel knew in 2011 that her building would likely be demolished as part of future Uptown renewal efforts.
“The business operators organized the mural; it was not a town project,” the attorneys wrote. “The town had no participation in the painting of the mural.”
The artists notified the town and Bush in October 2018 about their concerns. Settlement talks were underway—with the artists seeking compensation—but they apparently stalled.
It's unclear when Trail East demolition and construction will begin. City Manager Pam Reece said last week that it is not imminent. A hearing is set for Monday in the lawsuit.
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