Jeannie Tidy is an art outlaw. For the past 11 years, she’s paid artists $350 to paint on city property, without official permission. You’ve seen these examples of ilicit street art – upbeat cityscapes, charming wildlife scenes, portraits of famous musicians, and whatnot – rendered on those refrigerator-sized electrical utility boxes at stoplights all across town.
Tidy may be well-intentioned, but she’s as oblivious to the law as any paint-sputtered tagger on St. Claude Avenue. Or she was, anyway.
Finally, City Hall has had enough of the 75-year-old’s unregulated art activities. A relatively new ordinance — passed by the City Council in November 2020 — has given the Department of Public Works the authority to select the art applied to New Orleans utility boxes.
From here on out, anyone who wants to paint one of the ubiquitous sheet metal rectangles has to pay a $50 fee, provide proof of liability insurance and submit a sketch of their artwork to the DPW, which, within 45 days, may or may not grant permission for artist to ensue.
According to the city’s website, the goal of the ordinance is to “regulate the content of utility box painting to ensure that they effectuate the purpose of promoting local events, occasions or community ambassadors that have a direct and substantial civic or community benefit, and impose other time, place, and manner restrictions necessary to protect City property, City benefits, welfare of the citizenry, and public safety.”
Tidy, whose nonprofit, all-volunteer organization Community Visions Unlimited has underwritten the painting of no less than 300 electrical boxes since 2010, sees things differently. She says the city ordinance is simply an example of “overzealous government bureaucracy.”
Corporate sponsorship or paint-clogged locks?
The regulation has brought Tidy’s days as a public art impresario to a halt in New Orleans, she said. In a steamy press release, Tidy pointed out that the city plans to “allow corporate sponsorship, ads etc,” thereby commercializing the project.
Indeed, the regulation allows sponsorship logos, though it stipulates that they may not exceed 5 percent of the artwork.
In a resolute email to Tidy and the media, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that Tidy had it all wrong. The mayor said that though she’s always been an art supporter, municipal oversight was required in this case because Tidy’s artists had “damaged DPW’s traffic control boxes, which ultimately created more work for DPW staff to open the box.”
According to Cantrell, Tidy’s crews have been “painting over the locks and edges of the box, making it very difficult and/or requiring additional tools to open the door.”
Brightening up the scenery
Before we brush any more colorful details onto this arty brouhaha, let’s take a moment to sketch in the backstory.
Even five years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood, much of the Crescent City was still a dry sight to behold. So Tidy, a native New Orlean and Fortier High School grad with a background in fine art, blighted property restoration, and nonprofit organization management, set out to brighten things up a little.
At first, Tidy encouraged a handful of local artists to paint the blank traffic control utility boxes along the roadways in Lakeview. But in no time, the project, which she called the “New Orleans Street Gallery,” spread to other neighborhoods.
Not all of the mini murals were masterpieces. But the feel-good artworks were seen by some as an antidote to graffiti in the recovery-weary city. The artists were chosen by a panel consisting of an art authority, a board member of Tidy’s nonprofit corporation, Community Visions Unlimited, and a neighborhood association representative. Tidy and her supporters raised the money for the paint and other necessities and paid the artists a small fee for their work. Each mini mural was branded with the Community Visions Unlimited website address.
Tidy admits she was never expressly given permission to paint public property. She said that when she reached out to the Department of Public Works back then, she was told that, “so long as we got permission from the neighborhood associations, they (the DPW) wouldn’t bother us.”
And no one did. For five years anyway. But in 2016, after more than 100 utility boxes had been decorated, former Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry reported that Department of Public Works director Mark D. Jernigan planned to yank Tidy’s leash.
“Let me be clear,” Jernigan wrote to Tidy, “what you have done in the past and are currently planning to do with regard to painting city property in the public right of way has not been permitted or authorized by the Department of Public Works .”
That was true. But considering the city’s other infrastructure concerns, DeBerry questioned the importance of quelling Tidy’s seemingly harmless project. “How does Public Works have the time to worry about beautiful art that hasn’t cost the city anything and hasn’t caused any controversy?” DeBerry asked, with an eyebrow raised skyward.
A new regulation
Tidy’s day of reckoning didn’t come in 2016 and wouldn’t for another four years. But in a November 2020 city council meeting – held via Zoom because of the COVID scourge — Kristin Gisleson Palmer called for a vote on a new ordinance that would explicitly place responsibility for future utility box murals in the hands of the Department of Public Works. And her six fellow council members voted unanimously in favor of the new regulation.
Ironically, Gisleson Palmer prefaced her introduction of the ordinance by congratulating Tidy for her past success with the project. “I’d like to give a little shoutout to Jeanie Tidy,” she said. “She’s been running that show for many, many years, and it brings people a lot of happiness while they’re sitting at a red light, looking at a box.”
Tidy claims that nobody notified her about the new rule, then or for almost two years thereafter. Nor, she said, the city did anything to prevent CVU-sanctioned artists from painting approximately 45 more utility box murals since the rule went into effect. Furthermore, she said that City Hall gave her organization $10,000 grants in 2019, 2020, and 2021 from the Wisner Foundation fund Which, according to the city website, supports “beautification, education, recreation or human services.” In retrospect, the financial support seems odd, since the city apparently had some concerns about the CVU project damaging the boxes.
‘I think it’s unacceptable’
Tidy said she first found out about the utility box regulation last month, when a city councilman’s staffer mentioned that she had to “pull a permit” before embarking on a box painting project in the district.
Tidy said she was blindsided by the revelation and immediately irritated about the lack of communication. If she’d known the council was considering the ordinance in 2020, she said she would have liked to be able to state her case against it. But, she said, “No one asked us to come to the table to discuss it.”
Tidy said she refuses to take part in the new regulation process. She said she believes that her project has done no damage to utility boxes, certainly none that would compare to the possible damage done by tags and stickers. She said she believes the city should pay artists for decorating the boxes, not ask them to pay $50 for the privilege. And she fears the Department of Public Works’ plate is already too full to manage any more. All things considered, she said “I think it’s unacceptable,.”
For now, Tidy plans to continue painting municipal boxes in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes and skip New Orleans. Though, she said, she’d be “happy to sit down and meet with city officials.”
City Hall has not responded to requests for comment.
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