You Can’t Just Do Art Without the Government’s Permission


Recently I read an article from Reason about a pizzeria in Arlington, Virginia, which came under fire from local government because the mural they paid to paint on their business featured pizza.

The mural included pizza because the business, you know, sells pizza, but apparently that’s against the rules. “Under Arlington County’s sign code, no mural painted on the outside of a business may depict the products sold inside,” Reason’s Christian Britschgi reported.

I read that and laughed. Those crazy Virginians, am I right?

Only, today I read in the Bismarck Tribune that a business in Mandan is having almost exactly the same problem. Cheryl McCormack reports:

The Lonesome Dove, 3929 Memorial Highway, was cited in October by code enforcement for placing an unpermitted Western-themed mural on its front wind block.

Shortly after being cited, bar owners Brian Berube and August Kersten applied for a permit for the large mural, which was completed by local artist Adrienne Phillips and is valued at $2,600. According to Kersten, the work of art took about two and a half months to apply.

The Mandan Architectural Review Commission, on Nov. 13, denied the application based on the following: The city’s mural guidelines state “no mural may be placed on the front of a building” and “no mural shall convey a commercial message.” City code states “no sign or wall mural shall be painted on any building without prior approval from the MARC.”

Right. You can’t just do art without the government’s permission. What do you think this is, a free country or something?

Be sure to read the whole article, wherein it’s made very clear that this regulation of art is extremely subjective, hinging in no small part on whether or not local officials like the art.

Maybe you could argue that it’s right and proper for local government to regulate business signage to some degree, and maybe that should even include a mural the business might want to paint on their property, but how in the world can the bureaucrats get away with telling a business their art can’t contain a commercial message?

It’s not like this is being painted on public property. It’s not like the mural was subsidized in someway by taxpayer dollars.

A business commissioned some art to promote their business. Of course it’s going to be commercial. Why in the world would that be illegal?

I have no doubt the folks at Lonesome Dove have run afoul of the law – the article describes the business owner as being unaware that the Mandan Architectural Review Commission was even a thing – but let’s admit that the law in this instance is pretty stupid. What’s more, we’re paying public officials salaries and benefits to work themselves into a high dudgeon over a mural on the side of a bar mentioning the bar’s name.

We’re lectured all the time by the politicians about the scant resources local governments. Maybe they should try doing less of this crap.