Popular mural is painted over, prompting discussion of how to manage public art

bmusgrave@herald-leader.com; kward1@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2014 

An Urban County councilman wants more discussion about how to manage public mural projects after a popular East Side mural was painted over.

This month, the mural on the corner of East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane on the former Hurst building complex was painted over by the new owner.

The mural honored the East End's history as the home of Kentucky Association racetrack, which preceded Keeneland. Along with a newspaper article from a day at the races, it depicted horses racing, including one being ridden by a black jockey. That was a nod to famous 19th century riders including three-time Kentucky Derby winner Isaac Murphy, who was originally buried nearby.

The mural was commissioned by LexArts in 2011 and cost $10,000. It also received $1,000 from the late Dick Hurst, owner of Hurst Office Suppliers.

LexArts had a verbal agreement with Dick Hurst to keep the mural for five years. But Hurst died and the building was sold last year to Zeff Maloney, who said he knew nothing about the LexArts mural or Hurst's verbal agreement to keep the mural for five years.

Maloney said that had he known, he wouldn't have painted over it. The mural was in bad condition and couldn't be saved, he said. Maloney said he thought Hurst had paid for the mural himself.

"I wish someone had told me," Maloney told the Herald-Leader. "It hurts me to hurt people. I am absolutely distraught."

Maloney said he grew up in the north end of Lexington and bought the building because he wants to invest in the city's East End.

Maloney said there was no plaque on the building to say that it was a LexArts project, and no one mentioned at the time he bought the building that the mural was a public art project.

Hurst's daughter, Hope Hurst Lanham, who took over the business after her father died and has consolidated the company's operations at 257 East Short Street, said she didn't know that Maloney planned to paint over the mural and said she was surprised when he did.

"I wish I'd had the forethought, I guess, to think that might even be a consideration," she said.

Councilman Chris Ford, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding Short Street and Elm Tree Lane, said he respects the rights of private property owners. Maloney was under no obligation to honor Hurst's verbal agreement with LexArts.

However, if there had been better communication among the neighborhood, Maloney and LexArts, a controversy could have been avoided.

If a public mural is to be painted over, everyone should know, Ford said.

"If we have a public celebration to announce the creation of a new mural, then we should do the same when we retire that mural," he said.

Maury Sparrow, the director of communications for LexArts, said the nonprofit arts group was not aware that the mural had been painted over until after it happened. Sparrow said that because the building was sold, there was nothing they could do to protect the mural. The agreement between LexArts and Dick Hurst was verbal.

Sparrow also said no public money was used for the East End mural; the commission was paid for with proceeds from LexArts' public art project, Horsemania 2010.

"Murals are looked at as temporary works of art," Sparrow said. "Most cities don't even go as far as getting a verbal agreement."

Sparrow said that each of LexArts' 16 public murals should have a plaque saying that they were public projects. However, sometimes those plaques fall off, are removed and not replaced, or are stolen.

"We have had a conversation about redoing all the plaques in town," Sparrow said. "That's something that we could do better."

Thomas Tolliver, an East End community activist, said he thinks "there ought to be some type of protection on the mural even if the building changes hands."

Tolliver said he recognizes that the property owner had the right to paint over it, but he was "disappointed that he did not have the social conscience to see that the mural had merit."

"I was appalled, galled and, frankly, mad," he said. "No attempt was made to connect with the neighborhood."

Sparrow said LexArts would like to invest in the East End and is interested in sponsoring other public art works.

Tolliver said he wished he had photographed the mural so it could be displayed as a banner or as photos lined up across a wall.

Sparrow said there are pictures of the mural, and it's possible that a reproduction could be placed somewhere indoors — such as the interior of a bus stop, another popular public art spot — or someplace like the Lyric Theatre.

Ford said something similar was done with a mural inside the former Russell Cave Elementary School. When the school was remodeled several years ago, the mural that was destroyed during remodeling was later reproduced and is still in the building.

Maloney said he would be happy to donate money for a plaque commemorating the popular mural.

"We understand and we are sympathetic," Sparrow said of neighbors' concerns. "There are things that go into a mural project that are sometimes beyond our control."

Local historian Yvonne Giles said that although it's too late to save the Hurst mural, the property itself has a rich history that is worth remembering.

In the mid-1800s, the site belonged to Farmer and Mary Ann Dewees, for whom Deweese Street is named.

The Women's Guild of Christ Church bought the couple's house, called the White Cottage, and some adjoining land in 1889, and used the house as an infirmary.

In 1895, the group built the three-story building that stands at 333 East Short Street, next to the cinder-block building that displayed the mural.

Giles said Good Samaritan Hospital bought that building in 1899, and it became a hospital for the East End, with a segregated "colored wing" for black patients.

Good Samaritan moved out in 1907, and the building was bought in 1920 by Woolfolk Coffee, which produced coffee there.

In recent years, it was Hurst's warehouse. Giles said she hopes the fate of the mural will inspire people to recognize the historical value of the rest of the site.

"I am really concerned about the other buildings in the block," she said.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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