July 31, 2019

Public Art in the W-J Historic District— Who Will Make the Decision, and How?

WHO DECIDES?: Veronica Olivares Weber, a former resident of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, spoke to the three panelists — (from left) Elizabeth Kim of the Historic Preservation Commission, Leighton Newlin of the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association, and Shirley Satterfield of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society — at Saturday’s discussion of public art in the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District. (Photo by Donald Gilpin)

By Donald Gilpin

A diverse gathering of about 70 met at the First Baptist Church of Princeton on John Street, Saturday morning, July 27, to grapple with the question of public art in general, and, more specifically, public art in the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) Historic District.

Sponsored by the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association (WJNA) in response to a mural project proposed by the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP), the meeting was not to discuss the ACP plan and “NOT to come to a decision but to begin a conversation and dialogue among the people who live in the neighborhood,” as the WJNA invitation flier noted.

“We are backing up the process and starting it all over again where we believe it should have begun in the first place, to get input from the community before it went anywhere else,” WJNA Chairman Leighton Newlin told the gathering. 

The ACP proposal for a mural painted by former Princeton resident Marlon Davila covering the outer wall of Lupita Groceries on Leigh Avenue was endorsed by the town’s Public Art Selection Committee, then went for review to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), which, amidst significant local concern, asked the ACP to gather more input from the W-J community.

Saturday’s meeting, led by Newlin, accompanied by HPC Officer Elizabeth Kim and Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society President Shirley Satterfield, succeeded in bringing out a wide range of voices and perspectives — more than 25 different speakers — on art; public art; history; and the past, present, and future of the W-J neighborhood.

Pointing out the rich diversity of the neighborhood and emphasizing that “there has never been friction, animosity, or dislike between any ethnicities” in W-J, Newlin urged that appropriate decision-making processes need to be developed.

“The problem was the process,” he said. “That’s why there was some angst, because some people felt bypassed, marginalized, and disrespected. Every ethnicity under the sun lives in the W-J neighborhood, and that’s what makes it the neighborhood that it is.”

Newlin went on to call for the building of consensus “about how we want to move forward when there are decisions to be made in our neighborhood, and also how to start a real dialogue, rather than allow outside forces to dictate parameters by which we engage each other.”

In explaining the role of the HPC, Kim acknowledged that “this is new for us.” She said that the HPC had never before had an application for public art in a historic district, and they were looking for guidelines for the process. “Is public art appropriate for any of the historic districts? If so, which ones?” She noted that the HPC deals with applications on a case-by-case basis, but acknowledged, “There’s a lot more discussion the HPC has to do.”

Many local artists and other supporters of public art spoke during the two-hour meeting, though there was no consensus on the question of the appropriateness of public art in a historic district.

Describing the current discussion as “a teaching moment” and the opportunity to develop an effective process and suitable guidelines, Councilwoman Leticia Fraga said she is generally in favor of public art. “It gives me a sense of place for the particular neighborhood. Depending on what it represents it can also be something that is welcoming to me.”

Maria Evans, ACP artistic director and initiator of the project proposal, noted that “Public art is everywhere. It is incorporated in our lives. Public art provokes conversations, ideas, and interest.” She added that the current discussion “is a valuable thing to be having.”

Dosier Hammond, longtime Leigh Avenue resident, weighed the conflicting issues, and emphasized the importance of a fair process with ideas generated from the neighborhood itself. “The question is ‘What does the neighborhood want?’” he said. He continued, “If we do have public art, it ought to reflect the history and diversity of the neighborhood.”

As planned, the meeting ended with no resolution, but the process, and the need for ongoing development of that process, will continue. 

As Satterfield noted in her opening commentary on public art, “In a diverse community all art cannot appeal to all people nor should it be expected to do so. Public art causes controversy. Varied popular opinion is inevitable. What is needed is a commitment to invention, boldness, and cooperation, not compromise.”

Or as Davila, the proposed mural artist, told the gathering “I just want to celebrate all of us being here today and thank you all for caring about our beautiful town. Don’t forget the big picture. We’re a community and that’s what it’s all about.”