The words “public art” may conjure images of colorful murals painted on the side of a brick building, crosswalks painted in a variety of shades, or a bright, shiny sculpture planted in the middle of a park.
But in Dunwoody, don’t think too colorfully. Actually, think in black-and-white.
The City Council is scheduled in September to consider a text amendment to its zoning ordinance to define public art as distinct from commercial signage. And public art in Dunwoody is proposed to be “black copy against a white background” specifically imitating the iconic “Everything Will Be OK Mural.”
“It’s baby steps,” Community Development Director Richard McLeod told members of the Planning Commission in June.
The “baby steps” include defining public art narrowly to ensure the city’s first public art installations imitate the famous mural, though they will be allowed to have different sayings on them.
Baby steps also may be just what it takes to get a traditionally conservative City Council on board. Over the years, public art has been raised, only to be dismissed by some members over the fear of confrontation and controversy in deciding what art is. Some members have expressed qualms that public art could mean graffiti or the types of radical murals notable in downtown Atlanta.
Alan Mothner, former executive director at the Dunwoody Nature Center, is heading up the new CREATE Dunwoody, a nonprofit board of arts supporters dedicated to putting public art throughout the city. Public art and culture are ways to set Dunwoody apart from neighboring cities and to reap the economic rewards that countless studies say arts and cultures bring to communities, Mothner said.
The proposed zoning ordinance defining public art also specifies the black-and- white sign must be painted directly on or affixed to walls in busy areas where they are visible to the entire community and be only 120 square feet in area. The proposed ordinance further states public art can only be erected after getting permission from the CREATE Dunwoody board.
“For me, arts are such an economic driver in cities,” he said. “It’s difficult to put a specific economic impact on art, but it certainly enhances the quality of life.”
The most famous piece of public art in Dunwoody is the “Everything Will Be OK” mural located at the Spruill Gallery at 4681 Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
The mural is hand-painted black words against a white background. The mural is one of Dunwoody’s most iconic images and is regularly used in tourism and other advertisements by the Dunwoody Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We don’t have a lot of public art, but we do have the history of that sign. It really resonates with the city,” Mothner said.
At the June Planning Commission meeting, Mothner said he and the 13-member CREATE Dunwoody board have been in talks with Jason Scott Kofke, the artist behind the “Everything Will Be OK” mural, about creating more of the same kind of murals.
“The idea is to put uplifting messages throughout city, that resonate with residents, that resonate with visitors, and collectively the signs send messages of positivity,” Mothner told the commission.
But will “Everything Will Be OK” become “Everything Will be the Same”? One commissioner balked at only having the black-and-white concept, saying having one such mural is fine, but to have several could earn Dunwoody the reputation as the city with “bland white signs.”
The concept, Mothner explained, is being done purposefully to roll out a small public art initiative. Eventually, plans are to incorporate color and more kinds of art into the definition the board gauges the community’s response.
Public art has been a difficult subject in Dunwoody for many years with many city leaders shunning discussions because of potential controversy.
But in 2017, the City Council did pay nearly $86,000 to Massachusetts-based CivicMoxie to create the city’s first Arts and Culture Master Plan, known as Create Dunwoody. The council then approved the hefty document that outlined dozens of suggestions and recommendations on funding, facilities, where to place public art and how to promote events in the city as part of creating its own identity.
That plan “went promptly into a drawer,” as Spruill Center for the Arts Executive Director Bob Kinsey recently described it at a separate meeting.
Mothner said he noticed the costly arts and culture plan had stagnated following council approval. He said he decided to “pick up the mantle” and implement some of the recommendations the master plan outlined.
One of the first recommendations was a 13-member board representing various community interests. While the master plan also recommended the city putting funding into the board and possibly hiring staff, Mothner said all members are volunteer and the group just recently got its nonprofit status from the state.
The current board members include local business owners, members of such nonprofit groups as the Dunwoody Nature Center, Stage Door Players, and the Dunwoody Fine Arts Association, and city officials with the Parks and Recreation and Economic Development departments.