Out with the old and in with the new; a phrase that may not always result in satisfactory changes. DMA-events mural program is going head-to-head with the Historic Zoning Commission over a mural being painted on the side of Wheeler’s Construction and Restoration, Inc.
The mural, painted by Murfreesboro’s Tara Aversa, is an American flag in the shape of a magnolia with the word “Manchester” on it. The Historic Commission finds it to be disrespectful and wants it covered up, while Scott Van Velsor believes he is in his right to have it completed. Aversa was commissioned to do the work by Van Velsor and his wife Kristin Luna.
“Kristin and I conceptualized a city-wide Manchester Murals program two years ago and pitched it to the tourism commission…but the idea eventually got put on the shelf as the commission had just provided funds for several other grant projects,” Van Velsor said in an email.
“This year, we just got tired of waiting; we want to see this city move forward by having tourist draws, sports tournaments and an attractive regional aspect to our local branding. Impressions are important and keen visitors to our area that might, say, want to relocate here, probably aren’t impressed at the moment. We love Manchester, but wish it would tuck in its shirt tail and be a little more presentable to strangers,” he added.
He, representing building owner Jim Wheeler, went to the Historic Zoning Commission to seek approval for the mural, painting the 121 S. Spring St. location, and adding a new awning during their Thursday, May 3 meeting. The commission approved the exterior paint and awning, but asked Van Velsor to wait on the mural until they could create guidelines for mural projects.
Van Velsor moved forward with the fresco, which was nearly completed as of press time. The move shook the zoning commission.
“It doesn’t represent anything,” said Pat Berges, acting secretary commission. “It has nothing to do with Manchester history.” She added that she would have preferred a recreation of a historic photo, such as horse-swapping events, or submitted designs.
“It’s inconceivable to me that a member of the committee would go out and do something so obviously against the guidelines,” she added. Berges said the commission called the police to stop the artist on Sunday, but law enforcement is not in charge of zoning codes and couldn’t do anything as the painting is not criminal.
Van Velsor claims the art is within code – his color choices matched those set by the commission and he did get their approval to paint the building.
The meeting’s minutes also show an approved motion that states “the commission embrace the use of murals within the Historic Zone to promote tourism and economic improvement.” Because there are no guidelines to stop him, van Velsor feels completely within his right.
“It’s a pretty clear battle that dates back into recorded history,” he said in an email. “This authoritarian idea that a legislative body, or dictator, can control both property use and decide what exactly constitutes art predates our country by a few thousand years. This is why we have a society and the rule of law.”
“It’s a little bit florid for what is at stake here, but I believe it,” he continued. “History, court decisions, national and local rules clearly say that art cannot be legislated. Also, the city codes director backs that up. I suppose the city could try to ban any public art displays in Manchester, but that doesn’t serve the goal of economic investment, tourism or community improvement. Isn’t this what our elected leaders were hired to do?”
Van Velsor was able to hire Aversa after a donation from First National Bank of Manchester, via Brent Parsley. It was done at no cost to the city.
The Wheeler building formerly had an American flag painted in the exact spot as the new mural. The flag was grandfathered in to the exterior building guidelines set by the zoning commission. The flag had the words “Welcome to Historic Downtown Manchester, Tennessee” written below it.