Mural, Mural on the Wall, Who's the Most Offended One of All?

Marvin Weeks and other black artists piped up when Oscar Thomas's mural went down
Steve Satterwhite

When a beloved mural of Martin Luther King, Jr., vanished from the corner of NW Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street in early November, it jolted a group of black artists and civic leaders. They bombarded the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation (MLK) by telephone and in person to ask what had happened to the picture and to demand its return. (The nonprofit business-development corporation owns the building complex where the artwork hangs.)

The painting, created by the late Miami artist Oscar Thomas, has since been hastily returned to its original location, but the controversy continues. Critics say the mural was handled carelessly and was damaged when it was rehung. And in moving Thomas's work without seeking advice from the public and from local artists, those critics charge, the MLK showed disrespect for the community it serves. "That's the most insensitive thing anybody could have done," exclaims an incredulous Sam Mason, who commissioned the artwork from Thomas when Mason was director of the MLK. "When I saw it was gone, I thought, What's going on here? That's our shrine. At least you could tell the community what your plans are."

The realization that this Liberty City icon had been moved to make way for a check-cashing business added a disturbing symbolism. Popular Cash Express hoped to put its front entrance at the spot where the artwork had hung and to move the mural into a position above its new front door. The juxtaposition of the painting and that particular business angered artist Marvin Weeks, who has restored a number of Thomas murals in Overtown and Liberty City. "That is not what Dr. King was about," Weeks says. Not only does the check-cashing business clash with King's vision, in Weeks's mind, but he also questions whether the nonprofit MLK should be leasing retail space to a check-cashing business in the first place.

The Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation was founded in 1975 to develop black economic clout. In 1982 the organization bought the Martin Luther King Business Center, at 6116 NW Seventh Ave., as a way to help black-owned businesses get a foothold in the community. As a focal point for the new office and shopping plaza, Thomas created an imposing ten-by-twelve-foot, black-and-white mural of King in oil on three pieces of plywood sheeting. When the work was completed, the three pieces were butted together to form a whole, screwed on to a wooden base, and then affixed to a wall facing the southeast corner of NW Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street (which also carries the name Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard).

Since its installation in 1994, the photo-realistic painting has become a special work of art in Miami's African-American community. It also is among the favorite images photographers use to portray Liberty City. "This picture goes all around the world," notes graphic artist and MLK organization member Altine Baki. "It's in brochures. It's in books. It's in people's videotapes. This is a landmark in our community -- and in our community we don't have that many."

Adds Weeks: "That was the picture in the neighborhood."

Although Thomas and his mural have gained stature with age, the MLK has not enjoyed a similar fate. The organization has struggled over the past several years. Tenants have moved out of the commercial center, making it difficult for the MLK to keep up mortgage payments on the property. Internal strife led to an uprising among members in 1998, when they ousted the entire board of directors. Until the Chicago-based Popular Cash Express signed a lease to relocate its Liberty City store from across the street to the commercial center, the space had been vacant for three years, says Billy Hardemon, chairman of the MLK's board of directors.

When Popular Cash Express discussed remodeling their new store, the board saw an opportunity to accommodate a new tenant and preserve the mural. The MLK had discussed several years ago how to better protect the artwork, Hardemon says. Because the Thomas piece was located at eye-level, it has been subject to damage from exhaust fumes, splashes from puddles, and vandalism. (In the past seven years, though, it has never been defaced.)

As it considered relocating, Popular Cash Express thought the area where the Thomas mural hung would make an ideal front entrance to the business. The company got the MLK's approval to install a double glass-door entrance with a transom window and to move the picture above the entrance, flush with the roof of the building. To the board the plan sounded good. The painting would be more visible higher up, and it would be distanced from pedestrians and cars.

Neon Sign and Service Corporation pulled permits with the City of Miami to proceed. The company recommended framing the mural with a protective metal casing, says Dennis McHan, president and general manager of the sign company. Popular Cash Express would have spent about $4000 on the job, McHan estimates, adding that the painting "would have probably lasted longer and had far more visibility."

In early November the mural was removed while Popular Cash Express cut a hole for the new entrance into the masonry-block building. That's when all hell broke loose. Mason recalls almost crashing his car when he saw the artwork was missing. Weeks was similarly dismayed when he returned from an art show in Georgia and realized the mural was gone. Both quickly contacted the MLK.

Vehement opposition to moving the painting caught Popular Cash Express off guard, says spokeswoman Frances Ryan from the company's Chicago headquarters, where the idea was to help preserve the work, not to destroy it. "We respect, as members of the community, the presence and the importance of that mural," Ryan says. "The mural has been neglected. We felt as a responsible corporate citizen, it would be a good thing to bring [it] back to the condition it deserves, to bring it back for the enjoyment of the community."

But when tension over the picture heightened, Popular Cash Express decided the only acceptable solution was to return it to its original location, Ryan explains. The company moved the front entrance, cemented the hole, and asked Neon Sign to remount the painting. Ryan says she is saddened that her company's good intentions were interpreted so negatively. "It goes back to [the] MLK," she complains. "It is a case of bad communication."

But community activists' concern over the mural only grew when it was rehung. Weeks says the sign company did a sloppy job. Two panels weren't properly aligned, and therefore important elements of the image are out of sync visually. Workers also used at least 32 bright-blue screws to affix the painting, which clash with the monochromatic colors Thomas used. The artwork now bows out from the wall in places, which could lead to permanent warping. And there are gaps in the back of the mural where moisture can get in. "That's an embarrassment," Weeks mutters as he points out flaws in the reinstallation.

The art fiasco goes beyond thoughtlessness, according to Weeks and others. They say it is symptomatic of broader problems at the MLK. Not only has the corporation shown disregard for an important community landmark, they charge, but it also has shown little interest in participating in broader efforts to revitalize the area. As a nonprofit in the heart of the Edison Center Business District, the MLK should serve as an example of responsible redevelopment, Weeks and Altine Baki say. Instead the nonprofit seems to be charting a separate course. For example the MLK is changing the color of the awnings on all the businesses in its commercial center to Popular Cash Express's royal blue. But the palette of shades chosen by community groups for coherent design in the NW Seventh Avenue business area does not include that color. Additionally when the MLK repainted the business center, crews covered over a mural Weeks had created on a courtyard wall, although the design guidelines emphasize the use of such art as a central motif in the district.

Ironically, though, the conflict over the Oscar Thomas painting may ultimately help save it. When Frances Ryan traveled to Miami recently she examined the mural and agrees the reinstallation wasn't done properly. The company would be willing to help pay the cost of restoring the artwork and to bear the expense of maintaining it, Ryan promises -- if there is community support.

Bill Iverson, art collection specialist with Miami-Dade County's Art in Public Places program, says his office could help by asking restoration experts to consult on Thomas's work. Preserving outdoor murals is a problem with which many cities struggle, Iverson reports. He suggests a committee of artists and art professionals meet with the MLK and the Liberty City community to explore solutions. On that front Art in Public Places could help. "We do have a lot of connections," he offers. "And we can help bring people together for other ideas."

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