An interview with Perry Frank, founder of DC Murals.
Jay Can you tell me about DC murals?
Perry The mission is to enhance what we have on the walls of DC. The magnificent public art goes back to 1970 but most didn’t start booming till the late 70s and 80s. At the point where I started, there was very little on the internet, but there is now a lot. What I had in mind was a deeper look at the murals, to get the background, to interpret them and find out what they mean. I was asking questions like, “Why where they done,” “How much impact do they have on the city,” “How do they reflect the city,” and “How do they form the city?”
And now, many of the murals are going down, mostly due to development that is erasing them—knocking them down. We want documentation that will preserve this art for future generations. It is a project to make the murals more accessible and meaningful for all.
We do that through our tours, programs, and exhibitions supported by our research. The research will be permanently archived at the Martin Luther King library.
Jay All the research is at MLK?
Perry It will be. We have a commitment to give it to them. We are currently digitizing our paper archives.
Jay How is the research done? Interviews with the artists, people in the community, how does the research take place?
Perry It starts at the mural itself. We look at the murals to get our own ideas about what it means. The first interviews we do is with the artists who worked on it and we have done some formal oral histories—we have those on tape. We ask them about their backgrounds then about the mural. We ask them questions that are like “What was your inspiration,” “How did you come to do the mural,” “Did you have an idea then bring that to funders or was it an outreach?”
Much of the funding is from the DC Commission for Arts and Humanities, though not all the funding comes from there. They have competitions for murals and artists present their ideas, then they pick one.
The artists are very proactive themselves in seeking funding and some of the murals are funded by corporations. Like Heineken beer just funded a bunch of them. The famous, Duke Ellington mural was funded by Mobil Oil. Some are privately funded.
The research also asks how the mural fits with the neighborhood. Is the mural a reflection of the neighborhood? Many of the murals in DC do reflect the neighborhood and incorporate or reflect neighborhood history. One of the things that DC murals have done is anchoring the neighborhoods by having something they can take pride in.
After we get the oral histories we go the neighborhood itself and talk to them—the ANCs are part of approving the murals now and that wasn’t always the case.
Jay What are ANCs?
Perry Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. You don’t live in Washington?
Perry Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are lowest level city government. They are neighborhood governmental organizations formed from volunteers with regularly scheduled meetings. They put in their two cents on all kinds of legislation that affects their neighborhoods. According to the city, they are supposed to have a great deal of weight.
In terms of the murals, informally the ANCs have always taken interest. Fairly recently an issue came about that made the city take a more formal approach and required for ANCs to sign off before a mural is put up.
So we talk to them and the sponsors. We talk to the funders and owners of the sites. We ask them why they wanted the murals on their sites and did they reach out to the artists. That is an important piece of the story too – how the mural came about.
We do deep historical research into the neighborhood itself. We have quite a bit of material on that. The DC Heritage Tourism Coalition has been a resource and has produced a series of plaques and pamphlets on the history of different neighborhoods; so has the DC Office of Historic Preservation, and of course info Is available on line.
I’ll give you an example one of our great murals east of the river is called 100 Years or the Deanwood Mural. It was done by Rik Freeman in 1991. It is a long retaining wall and it is mostly depictions in the Civil Rights movement–Angela Davis, Tuskegee Airmen, the athletes that gave the famous salute at the Olympic games. If you look at it left to right is history of the area, there is a racetrack with horses and the first drive in restaurant in the neighborhood. It shows the relationship of the national push for Civil Rights.
It is history and documented history.
Jay Do you see yourself and your project as a historical documentation of visual and oral histories? Are you an organization that advocates for art and public art?
Perry We document and interpret public art attempting to make it more meaningful for the public. I think without saying so we advocate for public art and wouldn’t be if public art were not important.
We don’t really have to advocate because it is all over. It is a huge development in the US cultural scene. After the 1930s and the WPA project, there were no more murals in the US because people went to abstract expressionism etc. It started again in the late 1960s as an offshoot of the civil rights movement. It spread and developed in all kinds of ways. Cities really picked up on it. It is an enormous outpouring of creativity in urban areas and transformed the landscape.
My mission as an academic and cultural historian is to examine what it means for civic life. How is it important for life in our cities in the twentieth and twenty-first century? So I don’t have to advocate for murals. Murals are a huge cultural expression.
As far as advocacy is concerned we do preservation and restoration that has largely been neglected. Many older murals have fallen into disrepair. Some have been restored by the artists and sometimes the community has banded together to restore. Many have gone down to the wrecking ball with no documentation and this is a tragic thing.
So we are advocating for city guidelines or requirements. There are many regulations for how historic facades should be preserved. However, there are no guidelines for murals. Who owns them? How can they be preserved? If they are considered important, how can we maintain them? What happens when a developer wants to take them down?
At the current time, and this is very shameful, the artist is not even notified when a mural is going to be destroyed. Copyrights are a question. Who owns the image and if the image is reproduced does the artist stand to get royalties from that? That is being considered and debated. It is a whole constellation about care and meaning of murals here and now and in the future. It is going into a historical archive.
The artist owns the rights to the images and in theory should control their use and collect fees—not honored, the images are used all the time for commercial purposes without attribution or compensation. It is not clear who owns the mural itself, the artist, building owner, finder, or the whole city collectively. There is a need city guidelines on under what circumstances a mural can be destroyed, who should be compensated, if anyone!
For more information about DC Murals go to https://dcmurals.info
Edited for clarity.