Cities Like Murals - But What Happens When The Paint Peels?

Jul 17, 2018

One of Sterling's murals that has suffered damage from the elements
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Putting up a mural is often a community event. The art can be a point of pride for residents. But what happens when the paint peels? One city is trying to figure that out.

The internationally famous Walldogs artist group came to the Illinois Valley city of Streator this summer and filled it with murals. The city set up a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization specifically to take donations for their maintenance, as well as any future ones. Most towns haven’t made formal provisions for their murals like that. Sterling, in Whiteside County, certainly hasn’t.

Sterling Main Street Executive Director Janna Groharing gave a tour of some of the twenty murals that are scattered about the city’s downtown one hot July morning. The sun was already beating down as she pointed out the first mural on the walkaround.

“This is what they call ‘Old Downtown,’” she said. “This was put up in 1995. And it was actually the first mural that was installed. And surprisingly, it’s one of the ones in the best shape still. It’s in the shade a lot of the day. It doesn’t take a big beating on direct sun. It went up on a good surface, so we don’t have a lot of peeling paint and things like that.”

That’s not true for the next one, on the other side the street.

“We’ve got ‘The Old Trolley’ which went up the same year,” she said. “But as even you can see from here across the street, it’s on a stucco building. There’s a street tree. As the tree has grown over the years it’s brushed against the building. It’s caused some damage to the face of the mural. We’ve got some peeling paint.”

Groharing said there used to be an active mural society, a group of volunteers that paid for and produced them over the years, but it eventually petered out. So the city turned to Main Street. After all, it’s an organization focused on promoting the downtown, and that’s where most of the murals are. So it took on the task of promoting and preserving the works. They also take public donations for that purpose.

Groharing said they’re still figuring out the next steps. She’s not even decided on how best to proceed.

“It’s like one of those things – what comes first, the chicken or egg?,” she said. “Do you decide what needs to be done and then raise the money, or do you raise the money and then decide what needs to be done?” 

Detail from a mural depicting the 1922 visit by the Ringling Bros. Circus when the Big Top caught on fire
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

And there are so many other questions: who owns the rights to the works? Do they need the artists’ permission, or the building owner’s, to alter an original work of art? Groharing said she’s still trying to find what, if any, records there might be relating to the circumstances around each one.  

She just knows it’s necessary, if the murals are to survive. She pointed to a mural of Sarah Worthington, organizer of the city’s first school. It’s another one that’s on stucco, and it’s in bad shape – peeling paint and big gouges, too. She said the property owner has talked about putting a display window where the mural is now.  

“He would still love to do that, and jokes with me all the time that he would like to do that,” she said, “but he understands the importance of the murals and has not done that. But again, we need to keep them in good repair. Otherwise, the property owners don’t see the value, and if you’re not going to take care of it, why do I need to bother having it on my building? Why can’t I just take it down and put what I want.”

And it’s not just the condition of the painting, either, that can be an issue. On another building is a mural of the Sterling Lady Zoaves - basically a drill team, Groharing said – depicting them setting a world record for scaling a wall in 1919. It’s in good shape. But she pointed to where the paint covers bricked up windows. 

“What happens if somebody would want to come in, you know, as people rehab buildings, and want to open up those windows on that second floor for whatever use they may want in the future want this building to be?”   

'The Sterling Lady Zoaves'
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Sterling’s not the only city where changes in personnel and even whole organizations make responsibility for mural maintenance an open question. When asked who was responsible for DeKalb’s, for instance, a city staffer replied “good question.” The groups responsible for many of the city’s murals are long gone, and their successors, too. Groharing said, at least in Sterling, the question of responsibility has now been answered – Main Street. It’s all the other ones she mentioned that remain.

But, Groharing said, one thing is sure. These murals all came about because of grassroots efforts – and it’s going to take a grassroots effort to preserve them.

“If you want to make your community a better place to live,” she said, “and these things in your community are important to you, then the individual needs to step up, and the community needs to step up, and say, hey, these things are important to us, we want to help, and not just wait for somebody else to do it.”

It might turn out to be more complicated than grabbing a bucket of paint and a brush – a lot more. But, she said, they represent something special, and she thinks it’s worth it to try.