Detroit City Council rejects payment to international artists for downtown murals

Detroit — A $215,000 contract to paint six murals in the city to help beautify downtown before this spring’s NFL draft is getting pushback from the Detroit City Council, who say they never approved the agreement but the murals have already been painted.

Detroit City Council members on Tuesday interrogated Planning Director Antoine Bryant for soliciting a contract for six murals using city funds without their approval. Now that the work has been completed, the council is refusing to pay for it.

The nine-member council voted to reject a $215,000 contract for the exterior murals by the Street Art Mankind Corp. based out of Larchmont, New York, to pay for services already completed, despite the city’s top lawyer telling them the artists could sue for legal fees that could cost more.

A mural has been drawn on the side of Detroit's Hotel Indigo by German born artist Hera. It is one of six private buildings where the Duggan administration hired a company to draw murals. The City Council rejected funding the mural contract on Tuesday.

Bryant apologized and said the company began work without approval from the city.

“And they continued to work after being told not to continue and then finished the work within a span of eight or nine days,” Bryant said.

The murals commissioned on privately owned “donated” downtown building exteriors were intended to be completed ahead of the National Football League Draft in late April to uplift the city’s appearance and were initiated by the city with private stakeholders, Bryant said. However, the funding was being requested out of the city’s planning department fund after the work was completed.

“The work began and finished prior to any engagement or approval from the city,” Bryant said. “I directly go against the narrative that there is rogue activity occurring. I’ve brought a number of contracts and other matters to this council both in committee and in body of a whole and look forward to continue to do so.”

As a prelude to the NFL Draft, Street Art for Mankind announced it was creating a massive “Be The Change” art walk made of large inspiring murals, in partnership with the city of Detroit to welcome visitors downtown. The six murals, inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “celebrate humanity’s shared values and Detroiters’ resilience. It is a reminder that everyone, and anyone, can be the change,” according to the initiative’s website.

The international art collective could not be reached Tuesday.

“The city is charged with a bill the council has not approved and we are very disappointed, to say the least,” said Councilman Fred Durhal III. “It sounds like a confused understanding of who initiated the work.”

Conrad Mallett Jr., the city’s top attorney, said if the group of artists believed they operated in good faith, they could bring a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court that the city would have to defend.

“Ultimately, we would be ordered by the judge to make some kind of settlement. However, without the City Council’s approval, there would be no active attempt by the city of Detroit to make payment,” Mallett told the council.

Mallett said he doesn’t think there are any punitive damages and court settlements would be in the same ballpark of the $215,000 contract itself or more.

“In this particular case, the planning department, along with the Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Partnership, Sports Authority and Economic Growth Corporation, all the entities involved in bringing the NFL Draft to the city of Detroit collectively made a determination that enhancing the physical circumstances that of the downtown area particularly would be in everyone’s interest,” Mallett said.

The City Council’s “lack of consideration was consequential,” Mallett said.

City Council President Mary Sheffield called out that the council couldn’t use general funds for home repairs, water basement backups or lending credit due to the Michigan Constitution.

“I love the 2024 Draft and I think it’s great for the city, but I just think it’s unfortunate that all of those entities you just mentioned came together and said that this was a great use of public funds, but when it comes to keeping people in their homes, that was not an option for public use funds which is very upsetting to hear,” Sheffield said in response to Mallett.

Detroit City Council member Angela Whitfield Calloway said Tuesday that two private buildings where murals were drawn were owned by the Ilitch organization. The council rejected city funding for the murals.

Councilmember Angela Whitfield-Calloway asked where the artists are from and who held meetings with the artists to curate the large murals. She also said two of the buildings where murals were placed are Ilitched-owned buildings.

“We should send them the bill,” Whitfield-Calloway said.

Bryant said he signed off on the contract after the work was completed and then brought the contract to the council. The work was solicited from artists starting a year ago, “but they were never given the thumbs up,” he said.

The designs were chosen by the international artists and were all placed on privately owned buildings, Bryant said. He added, “There was not enough engagement with the community.”

Murals have been a large part of the city’s Blight to Beauty initiative. When the “Be the Change” set of murals began work last year, local artists called out the project saying the half dozen murals were all painted by international artists at below market rate, the artists told one media outlet.

Antoine Bryant, the new director of Detroit's Planning and Development Department, stands in front of a vacant lot at the corner of Dexter and Tyler where the city plans to develop pop-up shops. In his first 18 months on the job, Bryant said he's aiming to connect with residents in all of Detroit's 200 neighborhoods.

Bryant apologized profusely to the council and said a contract would not move forward from the Planning and Development Department without their approval again.

“The murals were intended to be put up in advance of the draft and will be maintained well after the additional 400,000 people leave the city in late April,” Bryant said. “These murals will probably have a several-year lifetime and their (maintenance or removal) are not the obligation of the city.”

Whitfield-Calloway disputed that claim saying a few months ago, the city had to approve a contract for graffiti removal off several privately-owned buildings.

“I would imagine we’d be responsible for maintaining the murals on the side of these privately owned buildings and I’m sure after they fade from the sun, that we will be the body that approves for them to be removed as we just did,” she said.

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