OPINION: MURAL MADNESS

words by Josue Ramirez

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Unfinished BTX Mural Ted Kelly Picture by Jose Colon-Uvalles

A millennial pink wall and colorful geometric shapes went up on the Capitol Theatre Building in Downtown Brownsville. It is by L.A. based artist Ted Kelly and it is one of three murals to be created from Elon Musk’s donation to the City. While the northern wall of the historic building has a fresh coat of paint, the Capitol Theatre doors are covered by faded panels decorated by local artists, perhaps representative of the investment in Rio Grande Valley creatives. The selection of a non-local artist to paint one of the largest murals in the Valley has not boded well among many RGV residents as it is seen as an example of the local inequity in the arts.

Anger from 956 creatives has bubbled on Twitter, frustrated around the announcement and process for the development of public murals. Many see this as a slap in the face to local creatives who more wholly represent the spirit of Brownsville and who have not been presented with local opportunities this large.

Records show that over $77K were set aside for the three murals with Kelly being paid $20,000. Mexican artist Sophia Castellanos was also selected and has recently begun painting the mural with the help of volunteers. That leaves one mural to be created by an RGV artist who is yet to be decided on. While some are angered with the artist selection, it is not uncommon for cities to commission or set up calls for murals that feature national and international artists, especially when they have the money for it.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez took the critique as a simple one of aesthetics, saying, “Not everyone will like it…But it’s still art and all art is good. @teddykelly is a professional muralist with a great portfolio in cities all across North America, who has now left his mark in our city.” Some say Kelly’s mark resembles the intro to a Taco Bell commercial or something straight out of Saved by the Bell. Despite the BTX lettering, critics say the mural does not make one feel any connection to Brownsville. 

Screenshots of Charlie Vela’s Twitter Feed showing peoples distaste with the Ted Kelly mural design and aesthetic.

Aesthetic aside, the Mayor fails to understand or is underplaying what the public is truly outraged about: the injustice of not supporting local talent while uplifting outsider artists for the sake of catering to the likes of space capitalist’s vision of the city. Earlier this year city officials met with the Musk Foundation who were to provide guidance, “as to how they want the money to be spent.”

Our community is being negatively impacted by the introduction of SpaceX through the rising housing prices, the closing of Brownsville’s only public beach, and now in the creative sphere. People are angered that the little money (in comparison to his wealth) given by Musk, did not even stay in our community for the most part and comes with strings attached. So is the purpose of these murals to instill “civic pride” and support local creatives or is it for the New Space City rebranding? 

Probably the latter, as emails obtained by Another Gulf Is Possible through a Freedom of Information Act request show an interchange between Alex Meade, Senior Vice President of Economic Development and Public Finance with Texas Regional Bank and Ramiro Gonzalez, Brownsville’s Director of Government and Community Affairs. The emails show they removed the language, “encourage local artists” from the City’s press release because they were, “kicking off the mural project with an artist from LA.” They seem very aware of the potential consequences to their actions and the contradiction in saying they promote local artists but then don’t hire them.

Emails between City of Brownsville, Texas Regional Bank and the Musk Foundation 

disclosed through a FOIA request made by Another Gulf Is Possible.

Ultimately, what this uncovers is the deep inequity in the arts and culture sector of the region. It shows the lack of serious interest in systematically changing the approach and investment in public art and the City of Brownsville’s approach to building community with local artists.

To make a significant impact in the city’s cultural engagement that money could have employed a cultural program director or an arts professional, even for just a year, and still have $25-35K for actual programming. Instead, City staff took the easy way out; they left the work of finding the muralists to an unpaid intern. In a tweet that has since been deleted, the intern stated that he had a hard time finding anyone in the RGV to do such a project.

Perhaps in addition to painting walls to make Brownville more marketable, the City should prioritize getting to know the creatives/artistic resources that have existed locally and develop a stronger creative infrastructure that benefits both the City and artists. For example, the excuse of not finding a muralist could be easily addressed through a transparent call for art template with guidelines and a clear description of the requirements, payment, and selection process. If you build it, people will apply.

Additionally, the City could be proactive and have a pool of artists or a directory of those interested in working or taking on creative city projects. The City of San Antonio has a great example of this process. Locally an RGV Artist Registry was started through the Miraaa Media Festival, funded by Trucha. Brownsville is no stranger to this system as they have a pool of contractors for development projects. 

Surely a room full of planners, architects, and development professionals well versed in Public Interest Design can think critically and provide some more thought-out community engagement process for the future, especially as more public art is hopefully installed. This is just one of the many issues and creative capacity building that needs to be invested in the long term and not just when a billionaire throws some petty cash in our direction. One reaps what they sow, and in this mediocre attempt, the harvest was a pink headache for the City of Brownsville. 

With Tesla operations moving to Texas, we are bound to see more of these debates over public space, over what visual art is representative of our region, and what is worth public and general investment. The City of Brownsville should learn from this mistake and implement equitable processes in their commissioning of art and supporting local creatives. As artists we should hold them accountable; let that pink wall be a reminder of what happens when we are not a part of these conversations. Let’s hold ourselves with the same regard and worth as well.

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