Words by Josue Ramirez
Edited by Abigail Vela
On Friday, February 10th, the City of Brownsville unveiled the long-awaited details for the third downtown mural to be funded by the Musk Foundation. Like its antecedents, the pink Ted Kelly mural on the Capitol Theatre and the butterfly eyes mural by Sofia Castellanos, the wall has stirred interest and commotion in the local art community and beyond.
The general issue that many are seeing with the Call For Art is the same thing that some have been shouting about since the Pepto Bismol BTX mural popped up suddenly; it’s a matter of equity. Local artists are upset for many reasons, including; the size of the mural, the pay, and the details in the fine print.
The mural to be painted will reside on 1268 E Elizabeth St on a 1,127 square foot wall. In comparison, the first mural was said to measure 6,000 square feet (although technically, it is a lot of blank space). Size matters when it comes to public art and its impact. For example, the “To the Cosmos and Beyond” mural by Sofia Castellano is the artist’s largest piece of work to date.
If an opportunity that large had been offered to an up-and-coming local artist, it undoubtedly could have helped propel them and their artwork to new heights. Some question why the local artist gets the smallest wall if part of the project’s purpose was to promote regional creatives. The RGV muralist selected is not only being given the tiniest stage in this SpaceX-funded circus, but other artists think they are also getting shorthanded regarding payment.
According to public guidelines first released, the lead muralist was to receive a payment of $5,869.79 with a material budget of $1,173.96. That meant the selected artist was to be paid approximately $5.25 per square foot, which is considerably less than the suggested rate of $20 per sq ft, even for a beginner muralist. Emails between the committee overseeing the project obtained through requests under the Freedom of Information Act show that the city first identified a rate of $12.15 per square foot as a baseline for the remaining mural project. So why did they set out an initial rate for locals that was half that?
Ted Kelly was paid $20K, and Sofia Castellanos was paid $15K for her work, although artist assistants were also compensated for their help in her case. According to a memo from the City of Brownsville to the Musk Foundation, the total cost of the first mural was $35,279.08, and the total for the second was $24,300. The memo states, “the amount left over based on the award amount for the Murals is $17,920.92.”
The City of Brownville is sitting on $24,300 left for the program as the memo states, “since the funds for the second mural were directly sent to the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art (BMFA), there is a total of $42,220.92 in the city account that has been deposited by Musk that can be used for a different approved program with the city, this includes the $17,920.92.”
The price tag for the local’s wall is significantly less, which coincides with the size. In terms of equity overall, it seems like the City of Brownsville underpaid all of the muralists. However, the discrepancy and the fact that the planning committee initially knew what rate was fair but still low-balled locals in the first Call For Art is telling— especially when they have extra money from the Musk Foundation donation.
In response to community backlash online over the low payment, the planning committee responded with an increase of the artist honorarium to $11,268 only six days later. This is good news for the local artist to be selected, but there are details in Call for Art’s fine print that might be concerning.
The Fine Print
Like a typical call for art, the proposal requires examples of past mural works, an artist statement, a Curriculum Vitae, a budget, and the proposal designs. There will be a selection committee for the top proposals that will then be voted on via a Social Media Voting Campaign.
The selected artist is also required to obtain General Liability insurance for the duration of the fabrication and will be required to appear on video and conduct interviews with media. Additionally, the terms and conditions state that “the collaborative body holds the rights of all images, photographs, and videos produced.” It is unclear whether this will be the City of Brownsville, the artist, the Musk Foundation, or the planning committee.
Unlike the other previous two murals, the artist must agree that the project will, “be treated like a street mural, where there is no upkeep, allowing it to erode with time” and that “the collaborative bodies for this project will be under no institutional or ethical obligation to keep murals looking new, repair any damages, or clean off graffiti.”
This is in direct contrast to the actions taken by the Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, the Brownsville Police Department, and the City of Brownsville against local activist Bekah Hinojosa who was unjustly apprehended and accused of “defacing” the pink BTX mural. Why is it that the City of Brownsville will take police and legal recourse against her but will not protect the mural that is supposed to represent the community?
According to the License Agreement between the City of Brownsville and Cindy Yang of Win Yang Inc., owner of the building located at 1268 E Elizabeth St, “The Building Owners represent that they own the building and are able to grant to the City this license for a period of ten (I 0) years from the date of this agreement.” The agreement was signed in September 2021.
Despite the length of the agreement, the city is willing to let the local mural deteriorate instead of doing the minimum of preserving the work for at least the length of their contract. The double standard and the hypocrisy against local creative voices is written on the wall, and the members of the selection committee and the City of Brownsville are the ones holding the can. The City of Brownsville needs to drop the charges on Bekah.
Many artists responded critically to the announcement, raised these concerns, and demanded answers. The public blowback increased the payment to the local artist. Comments on the Call for Art Facebook post showed that local creatives are very aware of the inequity of the situation. Some praised the collective feedback to the city; others, however, see the Call for Art, even without an increase, as an opportunity for exposure for local artists.
Murals are beautiful examples of public art representative of the people and surroundings. Still, as this Musk Mural Saga shows, they can also be weaponized to try and rebrand an entire community for the benefit of outsiders. Emails obtained through FOIA requests show that the City of Brownville is taking the opportunity to request the Musk Foundation for more money for planning staff, parking, additional policing, and for an “Alley Project.”
As creatives and artists, we must be aware of the double-edged sword that we wield. We must use it to justly protect our community to fight for our worth and the world we deserve.
For artists interested in submitting, visit City of Brownsville’s Call For Artist.