Five murals were to be painted in Franklin this summer as an effort to make the downtown even more of a destination and celebrate the local community foundation, but the city’s process for approving the work has raised the ire of a local artist.

Gordon Strain, who works independently as an artist, owns a downtown business and is a Franklin College professor, is frustrated that the city classifies murals the same as a sign, and therefore places limits on the size of the murals. He wants the city to change its local rules and has offered to help.

But the issue isn’t about art at all, city officials said, and murals of a certain size can be painted anywhere in the city with no review or permitting process.

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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits communities from prohibiting displays, such as signs or advertisements, based on the content of the sign. Businesses or organizations could paint advertisements and call them art, and because of the federal law, the city couldn’t prohibit it. The only way to prevent the city from becoming littered with signs or advertisements is to limit the size and number of displays, regardless of the content, the city attorney said.

Anyone wanting to put up more or bigger displays, or paint a larger mural, can go through an appeal process to seek permission.

Strain said the city’s rules are preventing at least four murals from being painted this summer, taking work away from local artists and keeping high school interns from gaining experience. He wants the city to make a distinction between murals and commercial signs, and has offered to help rewrite city rules and wants the mayor to direct his staff to consider a change.

Murals and art enhance a community, bring foot traffic to downtown businesses and provide unique backdrops for photos, which sets the city apart from other places, he said.

“It’s something that we visually see that represents our greater community,” Strain said.

The city said Strain can paint murals on city buildings today without any review or permitting process, as long as the size of the murals fall under the city sign code. Anything beyond that requires a review and approval by the city’s board of zoning appeals, a process which costs $200. Businesses apply for such waivers if they want an exemption from rules regarding such matters as street frontage, lighting requirements or the space between a building and the property line.

The sign code places limits on the type, size and frequency of all types of signs, from electronic displays, to permanent signs and temporary banners, based on the zoning district and the size of the building. The goal is to preserve a clean, uncluttered appearance across the city while still giving organizations the opportunity to promote a message, city attorney Lynn Gray and Mayor Steve Barnett said.

“They could put up a mural right now, without any permitting,” Gray said. “They just can’t put up the size that they want. A mural would be permitted without any review, as long as it is of a certain size.”

“This is not about art.”

Barnett and city council member Keith Fox both said they wholeheartedly support art and want to see more murals go up in the city, but that the process in place is what is allowed by the courts and is applied equally to everyone. Another consideration is whether brick should be painted on, since it would raise issues of maintenance, whether the brick can still “breathe” and the historical nature of some of the buildings.

If the city didn’t follow this process, any business along U.S. 31 could paint a large sign on the side of the building, and call it art, Gray said. A recent Supreme Court ruling, Reed vs. Gilbert, prohibits a community from reviewing the content of a sign or display in determining whether to allow it.

A community’s only recourse is to regulate the size and frequency of signs, and in some cases grant exceptions to the rules through the board of zoning appeals.

“It’s not that the city won’t permit a mural,” Gray said. “It’s that the city won’t let them do whatever they want to do, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

Strain said he is happy to follow the rules, but bringing public art to a community is a public issue and would improve the quality of life.

“I just wanted to help bring it out,” Strain said. “As an artist, I cannot agree or admit to a mural being the same as a city sign.”

Murals should be handled outside the sign code, and he proposed a voluntary committee that would vet each proposal and deny the murals or art that are clearly signs.

That wouldn’t work, city officials said, because the committee would be reviewing content.

“People who like art ought to like the First Amendment as well,” Gray said. “You don’t want communities determining the content.”

The issue is complex, Fox said.

“There is not a one of us that denies loving art and how it can help characterize and help define a city, but it is up to the city to define and approve what is acceptable for the good of all, and this matter is more complex in today’s world,” Fox said.

Barnett said he, as mayor, would not advise the board of zoning appeals or his staff to allow the mural of the sizes proposed without going through the proper process.

He supports art and praised Strain’s art on display at the new Meijer store.

“I didn’t say no to art,” Barnett said. “I love art. I said I’m not going to break the rules. Just follow the process.”

The issue surfaced earlier this year when Strain and the Johnson County Community Foundation began planning for this year’s Color the County program, which is placing murals in communities across Johnson County to celebrate the foundation’s anniversary and bring art to the communities.

Strain is hired by the foundation to direct the mural program, and additionally planned to work independently with property owners to add murals to other buildings. He said he talked about the work with city officials last year and was not told of any concerns, and he has not been asked to go through any approval or waiver process in other communities.

For example, last year the community foundation, working with Strain and residents, put art on the side of the county annex building along Jackson Street in Franklin. It has been called a mural, but is actually a sculpture mounted to the building, and isn’t governed by the sign code, senior city planner Joanna Myers said.

Strain questions why the city would make a distinction between sculptures and murals, but not signs and murals.

This year, the community foundation learned it needed to ask the board of zoning appeals for permission to paint a mural of a certain size in Franklin. That process does not cause any concern for Gail Richards, president and CEO of the community foundation.

“We knew that the city was interested in getting public art up and improving the gateway,” Richards said. “Our focus is on making sure that we try to bring art to the community and that we follow the rules.”

Later this month, Strain and volunteers will paint a mural on a building on Main Street in Whiteland through the community foundation program, and didn’t have to seek any permission beyond a discussion with town manager Norm Gabehart. Gabehart said the town doesn’t regard murals as signs or advertisements, and that a mural is no different than a property owner painting a building pink or purple.

In Greenwood, foundation officials only had to get the permission of the property owner, but the city may have to consider how to handle murals in the future, planning director Bill Peeples said.

The city doesn’t treat murals as signs unless they involve a trademark issue or when they are a blatant advertisement, such as when Steak ‘n Shake wanted to paint a blatant advertisement on the side of the restaurant, Peeples said.

But that was before the Supreme Court ruling, and if city officials had to look at the content to make a determination as to whether a display is a sign or a mural, that would be considered regulating content, which is not allowed, Peeples said.

In light of that ruling, Greenwood may need to consider treating all proposals as signs in the future, Peeples said, but the issue is more pressing in Franklin, which has many more opportunities for murals due to the historic downtown commercial district and its role as the county seat.

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at or 317-736-2774.