City explains why it’s taking over utility box street art project; founder feels kicked to the curb | Arts
Jeannie Tidy is an unlikely art outlaw. It’s undeniable that for the past 11 years she’s paid artists to paint all over those refrigerator-sized, city-owned, electrical utility boxes at stoplights across town, without ever having official permission. But anyone who’s seen examples of the illicit street art Tidy fosters — upbeat cityscapes, charming wildlife scenes, portraits of famous musicians, and whatnot — would probably agree that she’s always had the best intentions.
Nonetheless, City Hall has reined in the 75-year-old’s unregulated art activities. A relatively new ordinance – passed unanimously by the City Council in November 2020 – has given the Department of Public Works the authority to select the art applied to New Orleans’ utility boxes.
From here on out, anyone who wants to paint one of the ubiquitous sheet metal rectangles has to pay a $50 fee, provide proof of liability insurance and submit a sketch of their artwork to the DPW, which, within 45 days, may or may not grant permission for artistry to ensue.
Tidy, whose non-profit, all-volunteer organization Community Visions Unlimited has underwritten the painting of no less than 300 electrical boxes since 2010, says she’ll give up before she gives in to what she sees as an example of “overzealous government bureaucracy.”
Tidy is a native New Orleanian and Fortier high school grad with a background in fine art, blighted property restoration, and non-profit organization management. She began overseeing the painting of mini murals on utility boxes back in the dreary recovery era after Hurricane Katrina.
Tidy admits she was never expressly given permission to paint public property. She said that when she reached out to the Department of Public Works back then, she was told that, “so long as we got permission from the neighborhood associations, they (the DPW) wouldn’t bother us.”
The artists were chosen by a panel consisting of an art authority, a board member of Tidy’s nonprofit corporation, and a neighborhood association representative. Tidy and her supporters raised the money for the paint and other necessities and paid the artists a $350 fee for their work. Each painting was branded with the Community Visions Unlimited website address.
Not all of the mini murals were masterpieces. But the feel-good artworks were seen as an upbeat antidote to graffiti.
A steamy press release
Tidy said the new regulations are “unacceptable.” The city, she said, should be paying artists for their contributions, not asking them to pay for the privilege of painting city property. In a steamy press release she pointed out that the regulations allow for “corporate sponsorship, ads etc.,” which she can’t abide. Indeed, the regulation permits sponsorship logos, though it stipulates that they may not exceed 5 percent of the artwork.
But in a Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoon, Bryon Cornelison, the city’s director of special projects, and other officials explained that the regulations arose out of necessity.
“We love what she’s done in the city,” Cornelison said, of Tidy. So much so that City Hall gave her organization $10,000 grants in 2019, 2020 and 2021 from the Wisner Foundation fund, which, according to the city website, supports “beautification, education, recreation or human services.”
But Cornelison said, there have been sticking points. Sometimes, he said, the paint applied by the muralists has clogged locks, preventing city workers from having easy access to the mechanisms inside the boxes that control traffic signals. Also, artists have sometimes been put “in harms’ way” because of the location of some boxes too near traffic. Plus, the city wants to make it possible for any individual or organization to decorate utility boxes without being vetted by Tidy’s organization.
“The opportunity should be open to anyone,” Cornelison said. The city’s unwritten agreement with Tidy never gave her organization “exclusive rights.”
Mapping and monitoring
Cornelison said that the city has no interest in commercializing the project with corporate ads or logos. The regulation was crafted, he said to allow sponsors or organizations to mark the boxes in the same way Tidy has always marked boxes with the web address of her non-profit group CVU.org.
Cornelison said the new regulation will allow the city to map the location of the painted boxes and otherwise monitor the project. He said City Hall isn’t interested in judging the artwork; officials just want to be sure the designs don’t include images that might confuse drivers or are somehow inappropriate.
Finally, he said, the $50 fee is the cost of processing each application and will not represent a profit for the city.
Tidy claims that, though she played a prominent role in applying art to the utility boxes for a decade, nobody notified her about the new rules when they were passed in 2020, or for almost two years thereafter. Nor, she said, did the city do anything to prevent CVU-sanctioned artists from painting approximately 45 more utility box murals since the rule went into effect.
Cornelison acknowledges that Tidy’s organization “has had an illegal free ride for the past several months. “Shame on us,” he said.
A rapprochement may be possible. Cornelison said the city has “no objection” to Tidy’s role in the decorating of utility boxes continuing, under the new guidelines, of course.
For now, Tidy said she plans to continue painting municipal boxes in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes and skip New Orleans. But, she said, she’d be “happy to sit down and meet with city officials.”
This story was updated on Thursday afternoon after city officials met with the reporter to answer questions.
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