Elgin commission delays lynching-mural recommendation

  • The "American Nocturne" mural inspired by a 1930 lynching photo was briefly housed in the Hemmens Cultural Center before being put in storage. It will remain there at least until the city implements a public art plan.

    The "American Nocturne" mural inspired by a 1930 lynching photo was briefly housed in the Hemmens Cultural Center before being put in storage. It will remain there at least until the city implements a public art plan. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 7/11/2016 10:48 PM

The Elgin Cultural Arts Commission delayed making a final recommendation on a controversial mural inspired by a 1930 lynching photo until the city comes up with a comprehensive plan -- including disposal -- for all its public art.

The "American Nocturne" mural by artist David Powers depicts the crowd at a lynching in Marion, Indiana, but not the lynching itself. It was commissioned in 2007 by the city, whose officials say they didn't know of its inspiration until a passer-by in May noticed the similarity with the photo.


It's precisely to avoid such issues that a public art plan is needed, commissioners said Monday evening. The plan, which the commission had begun to work on before the controversy, would include policies about soliciting and implementing public art.

"It's the lack of procedure that got us to this in the first place," said city council member Tish Powell, who serves as liaison to the commission. "We want to make sure we are moving carefully and thoughtfully."

The commission could decide to sell the mural, give it to a third party including the mural's artist or a museum or gallery, or even destroy it.

The mural was moved indoors to the Hemmens Cultural Center after the controversy and has been in storage since mid-June. The commission recommended removing it from public display after most residents who spoke at two public meetings said the mural is offensive and should not be displayed in public.

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Commissioner Kate Darling said the community might object to the perception that the mural is being treated like routine public art.

Commissioner Erin Rehberg agreed the mural is a special case but pointed out any specific decisions about it would set a precedent. "What we decide will impact how we deal with everything else," she said.

The city council has final say over the mural's fate. At its Wednesday meeting, the council is expected to give the OK for the cultural arts commission to move forward with creating a public art plan. The process would last about seven months and include public forums.

The National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter last week to Mayor David Kaptain stating the mural is protected by the First Amendment.

"Art often provokes impassioned responses -- sometimes angry, sometimes enthusiastic," the letter says. "However, as a government agency, Elgin's City Council cannot use its power to remove a particular viewpoint or message from public view and thereby discriminate against it."

Kaptain said he decided to hold the public meetings about the mural precisely to avoid accusations of censorship.

The city's legal department plans to send a letter in response stating the city has the legal right to do whatever it wants with the mural, Kaptain said, calling the letter "threatening."


However, Joy Garnett, arts advocacy program associate for the New York City-based coalition, said the letter was not intended as a threat. The coalition doesn't litigate cases but weighs in on instances of art censorship across the country, she said.

Removing reminders of historical violence prevents conversations about it, Garnett said. The mural could serve a purpose in an educational setting, she said.

"In view of what's going on everywhere in the country, this seems to be of particular significance but also of particular sensitivity right now," she said.


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