Sunday, December 10, 2023

Williamsburg City Council discusses potential public art program

Williamsburg just might get more artsy in the future.

During the Monday City Council work session, City Manager Andrew Trivette discussed the potential for a new policy that regulates and encourages public art in Williamsburg.

Trivette specifically addressed mural art, but made it clear that mural art was not the limitation to the public art considerations but rather a good tool for examples and discussions.

The topic is part of the City’s Goals, Objectives and Initiatives for 2019 and 2020 because it believed that public art enhances a community’s identity and increases its economic vitality, according to the agenda item summary from the city.

“One of the things we frequently worry about is the aesthetics and how this will affect the aesthetics of Williamsburg,” Trivette said. “I don’t think anybody denies the aesthetics of Williamsburg are sort of a core principle to what we do and to what makes us unique and attractive.” 

Trivette’s presentation demonstrated that adding public art to the city was more than just painting on walls. The potential new policy would first have to define mural art.

In his research, Trivette pulled four definitions of mural art from localities in Virginia and across the country, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, that had both broad and concise definitions of mural art. One of the trickiest aspects of the definition was regulating commercial advertising in the murals.

RELATED STORY: After seven years, Williamsburg’s Arts District struggles for relevance

Trivette gave examples from other localities in Virginia that had mural artwork done but found issues when the locality realized the work, in some form or another, potentially represented a form of advertising. For example in Arlington, Trivette said a local store that sold tobacco products had a mural painted that featured a cigar. Once the city determined the cigar was a form of advertising, the image was changed.

“To me, this should be easy,” Trivette said when addressing advertising limits. “Because advertising and the boundary between art and what is advertising is so thin I would be a proponent that we not get involved in it, that we use the more generic language…as the definition and allow our process to determine if the art, regardless of content, is appropriate or not.”

The process of deciding not only what art to include but where it would be featured was a subject that Trivette also researched based on other localities. What he found was that localities with robust art programs generally follow four steps:

  • Public art application to an art liaison
  • Art reviewed by an art [council]
  • Architectural review by the Architectural Review Board
  • Site plan review by the Planning Commission

Trivette mentioned there were other localities that created a “certificate of appropriateness” as part of the approval process. What this means is the city’s Architectural Review Board is not considering whether the content of the art is appropriate but rather the location.

In regards to the site plan review step of the process, Trivette said it was important to note that public art applications are coming to the city more frequently now because developers are recognizing people are more drawn to places that have a distinct aesthetic value. 

However, that process is not set in stone and Trivette said there are options to cut down on the length, such as potentially including members of the Planning Commission and the City Council on the Arts Council. 

Trivette said the most important part of the potential policy was to consider funding. He proposed the city consider taking 1 percent equal to the annual CIP amount to fund some of the public projects.

RELATED STORY: The arts district may be struggling, but art in Williamsburg is still growing

“This is a soft commitment,” he said. “Because what you’re saying is our priority is to provide…1 percent for public art…in great years, we’ll be able to do that and in lean years, I will be recommending we dial that back.”

Trivette said his calculations showed that, should it have been taken from this most recent year’s CIP, the 1 percent would amount to about $165,000 based on the total value of $16.5 million. However, Trivette added that it would be an investment in the community.

“What we are recognizing here is [that] art and tourism are linked together,” he said.

Following the presentation, other members of the City Council expressed their thoughts on the project.

Councilman Benny Zhang expressed legal concerns for the certificate of appropriateness and whether or not it would create legal issues with freedom of speech. In addition, Zhang commented on the ways the art program can improve the city as well as the potential process.

“What we should do for public arts, or at least how I see it, is that potential tourism draw,” Zhang said. “If we’re just doing a public arts program for the sake of saying we’re just putting up public art—we should be bold we should, try to encourage those artists to want to put in those ideas and not feel like they’re going to be inhibited by whatever process. Now with that said, I think we ought to have a process.”

Monday’s work session was just the initial discussion of the potential program but Trivette said he hopes to have a draft prepared for the policy in the coming months.

The next Williamsburg City Council meeting will be at 2 p.m. on Wednesday in the Stryker Center.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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