Mebane looking at options for future mural, art projects in town

Following an unfortunate situation earlier this fall regarding a large and impressive mural that went along the south-facing wall of Muffins along Fourth Street in downtown Mebane, city leaders held a discussion during the November City Council meeting about local artwork. The City is considering a variety of options moving forward, including creating an Arts Council, and establishing a series of facade grants that would provide matching funds to business owners to commission artists for murals through a fair and open bidding process. 

Following an unfortunate situation earlier this fall regarding a large and impressive mural that went along the south-facing wall of Muffins along Fourth Street in downtown Mebane, city leaders held a discussion during the November City Council meeting about local artwork. 

In October, Muffins owner Russ Poore worked with local artist Artie Barksdale to create a spectacular mural of a pastoral farm scene featuring sunflowers and cows along the wall facing out towards Center Street. The mural drew rave reviews from local residents and city guests, but drew concern from the City of Mebane due to the fact that the Muffins logo was included in the mural, which technically makes the mural an advertisement. Mebane has a sign ordinance which restricts the size of commercial advertisements on local buildings. 

The City initially instructed Poore that he would have to either reduce the size of the Muffins logo or cover it up - a move that was met with considerable resistance by most Mebanites. Nearly 2,000 signatures were quickly signed on a petition organized by fellow downtown business owner Tonia Taylor of Blue Door Photography. 

In light of the public pressure - and some ambiguity regarding exactly what information was relayed to Poore and Barksdale prior to the completion of the mural - city leaders relented, and allowed the mural to remain as it is. The Mebane City Council spent several minutes at the conclusion of its November session discussion murals and local artwork, and what options the City has to encourage murals, yet also regulate them. 

“Ever since MUSE has come here, and Mr. Barksdale has done the mural downtown, we’re getting more folks interested in doing art downtown. I’m hoping we can at least have a policy so we can direct folks that want to provide art to the community, that there’s a path,” said City Council member Sean Ewing. 

“I don’t have a problem with the art. I do have a problem with the city paying for it, unless we figure out some way to do it on a fair bid and grant basis,” said fellow City Council member Tim Bradley. “We had this discussion years ago with the mural on the side of the Rice building. One mural was done downtown at the expense of the store owners. I think art is fine. We get a lot from the Arts Council. But I don’t think it should be a city-funded project, unless we come up with a grant program where people apply equally and fairly.” 

City Manager David Cheek had one suggestion that might assist with future projects downtown involving artists and artwork. 

“One thought for downtown was a facade grant program. We never really got around to talking about it because of the pandemic. But people can paint a mural on the side of their building now, and do whatever they want to,” said Cheek. 

“As long as it doesn’t contain advertising,” said Assistant City Manager Chris Rollins. 

“Small point,” Mayor Ed Hooks added with a chuckle. 

“Graham has done a great job with murals. There’s people that are wanting to see more murals in Mebane. And it’s an attraction. It becomes an attraction,” Cheek continued. “One thought we had was coming up with a facade grant program, but including murals in that. It would be some kind of matching deal. Those murals aren’t cheap. Especially if you have to finish the building correctly. That is something we’ve talked about internally on the facade grant idea.”

Rollins mentioned that Mebane Planning Director Cy Stober and his staff have been researching the possibility of a downtown program to encourage and facilitate artwork.  

“I would just follow up that as long as it doesn’t contain a sign,” added Council member Jill Auditori, who suggested the City take a closer look at its sign ordinance in the coming months. 

“I think the debacle we recently had with that might be the kick that we need to have a discussion about our sign ordinance. There have been a lot of changes to sign ordinances in a lot of communities, that I think are really good changes. I feel we’re behind the curve on that, and this might be the time to tackle it. I don’t know if the Council is interested in asking the staff to spend some time on that, but I would love to see us spend time on the sign ordinance.” 

“I just need a timeline,” Stober said in response to Auditori in regards to the sign ordinance. “We can include it as part of the statutorily-required UDO revision, which would come to you in roughly May. Or we can do it faster if you like.” 

“I’m good with May. That would be fantastic,” said Auditori in response to Stober. 

“We have to have something in place that we actually need to see the product,” added Mayor Ed Hooks. “Not that we’re artistic, or we’re going to change it. But we’ve got to be a little careful. Somebody may be painting things that could be offensive to a lot of people, and call it art. And it’s not. We need to be careful how this thing grows.”

Stober said that Hook’s suggestion that the City get to see the proposed mural or artwork ahead of time can be easily done through a policy that basically prohibits Mebane from charging a fee to review murals, but requires artists and business owners to submit all murals. 

“There are rules and regulations that go along with the sign ordinance. That’s one of the big misunderstandings,” said Rollins. 

Bradley reiterated his position that any program to encourage local artwork in Mebane should be a fair and open process that allows numerous candidates to submit projects for review. 

“I have no problem with a fair grant program. But if one artist comes up and says I want to do this, and we give them money to do it, that’s not the way to handle it. If you want to take that grant program (the City discussed in 2019) and change it and add murals to it, I think it would be great,” said Bradley. 

Cheek recommended that city leaders consider creating an Arts Council. 

“One of the other things I think the city needs is an Arts Council or Committee,” Cheek suggested. “I will tell you - making a decision on one of these whirlygigs, you wrangle over it, because you don’t know how people are going to react to it. It might be good to think about getting artistic people on a committee to make those decisions. Whether it be a small decision like the tree art, or whether it be some longer-term campaign where there’s a whirly gig on every corner.”