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City Hall emails detail planning of 2020 Black Lives Matter mural

Park City Summit County Arts Council
Over 15 months after they first appeared on Main Street, Park City's Fourth of July racial and social equity murals are still driving community discussion.

Emails from city hall have shed more light on the decision-making process and timeline behind Park City’s controversial Fourth of July 2020 Black Lives Matter mural.

The Black Lives Matter mural that temporarily covered several blocks of Main Street in the summer of 2020 before being defaced continues to spark community conversation and discussion.

Since the murals were painted, Mayor Andy Beerman, city council members, and City Manager Matt Dias have said that the Black Lives Matter message was not specifically requested, but rather the brainchild of artist Aljay Fuimaono. All said that they worked with the Park City Summit County Arts Council to ask Utah artists of color to paint four murals over the Fourth of July relating to themes of racial equity, and the murals’ designs were unknown until they were painted.

However, emails obtained through a government records request by a Park City resident show Park City Mayor Andy Beerman proposed Black Lives Matter art on Main Street on June 12th, 2020.

“I was thinking, BLM art on Main Street. It would be a statement, it would promote art, and it would generate vibrancy and interest,” Beerman wrote to City Manager Matt Dias, then-city attorney Mark Harrington, then-deputy city attorney Margaret Plane, and deputy city managers David Everitt and Sarah Pearce.

Beerman confirmed in an email Monday that the planning for the project began in early June in response to requests for Park City to host a Black Lives Matter rally. He said, “We thought an unpublicized art project would be a better way for Park City to join the discussion, but keep it local and low-key.”

According to more than 250 pages of emails between Beerman, city council members, city staff, arts council, and the public, city staff and officials began formulating the project sometime before June 18th, identifying locations on Main Street, the number of artists, and how the art would be produced over the holiday weekend. They set a preliminary budget of $10,000.

Jocelyn Scudder, executive director of the arts council for Park City and Summit County, reached out to Utah artists of color, saying the city and arts council were commissioning “large-scale street murals on Park City's Historic Main Street that address issues surrounding racial equity in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent nation-wide protests that are taking place after the death of George Floyd.”

On June 25th, Pearce emailed city special events manager Jenny Diersen and asked whether the murals should be moved or canceled. The day before, a city public works employee emailed Diersen expressing concerns of vandalism as a result of the murals. Pearce told Diersen she would ask Beerman what he wanted to do.

Four artists eventually signed on to the project and Scudder directed them to submit preliminary designs to be approved by the city and arts council by 4 pm on Wednesday, July 1st, and to keep within the theme of racial and social equity.

Almost immediately on the 4th, emails show many citizens and merchants questioning and criticizing the murals, with some saying the public was not sufficiently involved and others objecting to the use of public funds for what they deemed a political cause.

Addressing objections to the murals’ contents, Scudder told KPCW on July 13th, 2020 that the arts council did not want to censor Fuimaono, saying:

“We asked [Fuimaono] to interpret racial equity and he decided he wanted to paint Black Lives Matter. He, as a colored person, identifies with that Black experience. It wouldn’t be racially equitable for me to censor that message.”

A recurring question in the murals’ aftermath is what police knew about the project. On Monday, Beerman said he did not know. Chief Wade Carpenter did not respond to requests for comment, referring questions to Dias.

Dias did not answer KPCW’s questions about when police were made aware of the murals’ contents.

One email exchange shows then-Park City Police Captain Adrew Leatham asking on July 1st whether the city has information about the murals’ contents. Diersen replied not yet, to which Leatham replies “I hope nothing is inflammatory.” In cities throughout Utah and the country, protests over Floyd’s murder were sparking vandalism and violent conflict between protesters, far-right counter-protesters, and police. In Salt Lake City, 200 National Guard officers and a Black Hawk helicopter were deployed to quell conflict on May 30th.

Pearce notified the city council of the project June 30th. She emailed that four artists would paint “their interpretation of the racial inequities/Black Lives Matter movement” on the street, but did not offer specifics on the murals.

Emails also show senior city staff and event planners specifically directed those involved to not promote the murals beforehand, not wanting to generate large crowds on the street after cancelling almost the entire events calendar earlier in the summer due to COVID-19.

According to the emails, Diersen emailed Pearce, Leatham, Park Silly, and the city’s chief building official on the morning of July 4th with mock-ups and locations of the murals. This email indicates that the police department was first made aware of the Black Lives Matter mural the morning of July 4th.

The morning of the 4th was also when business owners in the Historic Park City Alliance first found out about the contents of the murals. Former Executive Director Alison Kuhlow said this week that merchants scrambled to find out what was happening that day. She said in her conversations with Diersen leading up to that weekend, there was no mention of social equity, the use of paint, or the size of the murals. Kuhlow said had the HPCA been aware of the murals’ size, that alone would have raised red flags because pedestrians would have to be rerouted on the street.

She said issues that troubled the HPCA also included the use of Main Street to amplify a message that could be off-putting to some visitors and customers, and fear of protests that might damage property or potentially become dangerous.

Nearly a year after his initial response, Beerman said during the May 21st city council retreat that “none of us knew what we were going to have until the morning of,” but according to emails, he was shown designs of all four murals on July 2nd.

Beerman said Monday that the city has apologized for its communications missteps in that project. Dias said it was a “very regrettable” fact that some community members, businesses, city staff, and councilors were caught off guard by the murals. If he could go back in time, he added, things would have been handled differently.

Overnight between July 7th and 8th, someone defaced the Black Lives Matter mural, partially covering it with grey paint. Park City Police have video surveillance of the area that shows two people walking near it at 1:15 a.m. Carpenter said the people are not identifiable. No arrests have been made.

Fuimaono returned to Main Street the following Sunday to repaint the mural, which lasted until fading away several weeks later.