For years, local artists in Fort Worth have painted murals for the city’s Graffiti Abatement Program on a voluntary basis. Now, they’re pushing back and asking for fair pay.
The call comes after the program’s latest project with Dallas muralist J.D. Moore came to a standstill after a city official tried to replace Moore with another artist.
Since last Fall, Moore has been working on the mural, a large, multi-colored piece featuring Black women that’s spread out over eight pillars below Fort Worth’s North Henderson Street Bridge.
Moore received paint and supplies from the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the program. He chipped away at it, mostly alone, in his free time.
“This is a volunteer effort. I’m not getting compensated directly for my time,” he said in an Instagram post. “There was no deadline specified, and that made me feel comfortable volunteering my time to create the best work that I could.”
This April, Moore says he got a call from Parks and Recreation Department Superintendent Michael Tovar. The mural was taking too long to complete.
“His solution for it taking months to complete is to have me cease work on it,” Moore said. “He explicitly told me not to return to work on it because he wants to bring in another artist to finish what I started.”
Moore took to Instagram to share the exchange. The video got 14,000 views with other local artists voicing their support for Moore. They held an open forum at Tilt Gallery.
The consensus was clear: The city needs to pay professional artists for their work.
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Fort Worth photographer Rambo Elliott was in the crowd. She said the city has a habit of working with young artists, fresh out of school, without paying them.
“It’s not okay to work for free,” she said. “We need to tell our city that we’re done working for free, and that we’re done having a few years of exposure. Exposure is not okay for my landlord, so it’s not okay for me.”
Victor Manuel, who goes by UNO, also spoke up about his own experience painting a mural for the Graffiti Abatement program.
“They gave me old paint, which I didn’t use. I had to get money out of my pocket for the paint and materials,” Manuel said. “They really take advantage of your passion and that you want to get your name out there.”
The program helps property owners cover up graffiti by painting murals instead, at no cost to the property owner.
At the Parks department, we couldn’t reach Tovar, but Parks director Richard Zavala says the program started back in the 90s.
“If you go back and look at the early days, mainly all of the murals were Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, volunteers, community groups doing murals that were almost homespun-type art,” Zavala said.
Over time, the program started working with professional artists, but the volunteer model remained.
“We have the funding for the staff. We have the funding for the supplies, materials and equipment,” Zavala said. “But, when it comes to murals, that has always been, and has been since the early 90s, a voluntary effort.”
Fort Worth City Council member Ann Zadeh says the program needs an update. She was at the artists forum.
“There’s an evolution on staff that needs to go along with that if we’re going to be hiring artists, which I think is probably a better practice than having them volunteer their time,” Zadeh said.
But, Zavala says the program doesn’t have the funding to pay artists. The Parks department is in talks with Fort Worth Public Art about possibly starting an artist residency program.
As for whether artists should get paid for their work?
“It’s up eventually to the policymakers that appropriate the funding for the services we provide in the city of Fort Worth,” Zavala said. “If in fact, the report comes out and makes such recommendations, I would think it would be given fair consideration for payment, if we’re going to do those types of murals.”
The city has since apologized to Moore for its handling of the project.
He’s meeting with Zavala this week, but Moore has not yet decided whether he’ll finish the mural.
“If the city wants work from professionals like myself, they should pay,” Moore said. “Either up front or in the form of residuals from image licensing. The program was willing to pay contractors to do my job, so the budget is there. It is the respect and value of artists that is absent.”