Preserving the murals made during the uprising

Plywood Murals
Murals painted on the boarded up windows of Burch Steak in Lowry Hill. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, hundreds of brightly colored murals were painted on buildings around the Twin Cities with messages of grief, anger and hope.

Illustrations of Floyd’s face and those of other black people killed by police. Phrases of protest like “Justice for George” and “Stop killing us!” Flowers, hearts, clasped hands and raised fists.

Many murals were organized by businesses shuttered during the unrest. Some were coordinated by nonprofits. Others were made in the spur of the moment by impassioned artists.

Discussions are now underway about how to preserve the painted plywood for posterity.

While interest in preserving the murals has been widespread, debate has centered on questions of who should be collecting them and how they should be displayed. “It seems like everybody’s on the same page that they shouldn’t be tossed,” said Brian Szott, head of curatorial affairs at the Minnesota Historical Society.

In Uptown, some businesses are planning to keep their murals on-site. Penzey’s Spices is planning to disassemble the mural on its exterior walls and reassemble it inside the store. Infinite Vapor has placed one protest mural on the wall behind its counter.

The Uptown Association is trying to find a permanent space in the community to display most of the 50 or so murals the organization commissioned — possibly inside the Uptown mall formerly known as Calhoun Square. The organization is deciding whether to auction off some murals to meet its funding needs. Others may be donated.

A group called Memorialize the Movement is raising funds to collect murals for an exhibit at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery in North Minneapolis. Organizers of the effort said the art should be memorialized through a “Black-owned and oriented organization.”

“I think it’s so important that we give space to the [museum] to tell this story because so often in this country black history is erased or told by white people,” organizer Leesa Kelly said.

Memorialize the Movement has collected about 10 pieces and wants to collect enough to sustain an exhibit for six months, Kelly said. The hardest part has been securing the plywood boards before they are thrown out or collected by another organization, she said.

She said the group is hoping to see meaningful conversations started around race and police accountability.

“We want to keep this moment going even when the protests have gone down [and] even when #GeorgeFloyd has stopped trending,” she wrote in an email.

The Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) said in separate statements that while some have urged them to collect protest art, they have no plans to do so.

“As a large institution built on the foundations of white supremacy, it is not the Walker’s place to lead such efforts,” spokesperson Rachel Joyce said, adding that the museum would be able to assist with transportation, labor, tools, packing and preservation advice as needed or requested.

Mia is aware of the “complex history of colonialism and white supremacy that has informed our collection of art and artifacts from different cultures,” spokesperson Michaela Baltasar-Feyen said. “We do not want to compound the errors of the past by presuming to be the insti- tution that should acquire these murals.”

Szott said the Minnesota Historical Society’s first priority is ensuring that community members decide what happens with the murals. He said he wants to prevent them from being landfilled.

Two groups have started efforts to document the murals before they are taken down. One effort, out of the University of St. Thomas, has documented over 360 murals, tags and other installations around the world through a crowdsourcing effort.

Preserve Minneapolis is also creating a public online exhibition of street art.

‘Keep that conversation going’

In a June 18 online forum, an intergenerational group of Black artists said that artists of color need to be involved in discussions around preserving the murals.

The preserved boards should represent all emotions people have felt, they said. They also said they hope this moment leads to more opportunities for Black artists to create more permanent works.

“All of the discussion about what to do with the boards is important, but what’s really important is how we keep that conversation going,” artist Alex Smith said.

Robyne Robinson, a former TV news anchor and public art consultant who organized the forum, thinks the idea that people find most distasteful right now is collecting the murals for money.

Robinson said she’s trying to foster conversations about how artists can help find solutions to societal problems.

“We need to take a look at the power of art as not just something that you hang over your sofa,” she said.

Andrew Hazzard contributed reporting to this story.