The state conference of the NAACP has demanded that Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold rescind his refusal to display a mural depicting a black man breaking free from bondage on the exterior of the county government's headquarters in Annapolis.
The mural, which would include a montage of local children's paintings, is one of a series of public artworks commissioned by a nonprofit group to mark the 300th anniversary of the city's public charter. The design was approved by Leopold's predecessor, Janet S. Owens, before she left office in 2006, and the finished piece by African-American artist George "Lassie" Belt was scheduled to be mounted in December.
But Leopold, who said yesterday the agreement with ArtWalk officials was never cemented, called the piece "inappropriate and too busy." Leopold said he is willing to exhibit the children's artwork in the Arundel Center's lobby, but that displaying any artwork on a county building would set a precedent.
"I have a responsibility to ensure that the building maintains a certain look," said Leopold. He said he is sensitive to artistic freedom, having dabbled in oil painting before entering politics.
"If you look at the other governmental buildings in the area ... you will not see artwork displayed on their exteriors," he said. "I don't feel comfortable using the exterior of the building for any artwork."
Gerald G. Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sent out a news release Sunday night calling for Leopold to reconsider, after an article on the subject appeared in The Capital. He described Leopold's actions as "some sort of censorship."
"There is nothing offensive" about the artwork, Stansbury said. "It's supposed to be busy. Children are busy. It's a shame that he feels that way, and he's going to dictate what kind of art goes up, based on his personal feelings."
Sponsored through a $70,000 city grant, ArtWalk has sought to put temporary murals on six sites in Annapolis. Artwork has already been installed on the Naval Academy seawall, an inner West Street restaurant, the Annapolis harbormaster's building at City Dock and the Severn Savings Bank on Westgate Circle; the remaining sites are the Arundel Center on Calvert Street near the historically African-American Clay Street community and a Compromise Street playground.
Belt worked with about a dozen city children, whom he called his "babies," at the Stanton Community Center in Annapolis to assemble the pieces of the mural, which features the word "Freedom" prominently above the man breaking out of bondage. The mural consists of three pieces, the largest being 10 feet high by 14 feet wide.
"I'm not here to start any war and to get people to look at Mr. Leopold like he's a bad person," Belt said. "I respect Mr. Leopold. I'm here just to get their work up on the wall, so these kids can see that they are somebody and they can put something up in the community that they can be proud of."
Belt, who grew up in the Clay Street area, said he was fortunate to go to college, and returned to the community to mentor young people.
"I know the struggles. ... I've seen people work to the bone, I've seen people stepped on, ignored," Belt said. "This drawing is a collection of all that. This is the bondage that we need to come out of. Truth be told, these things are still happening. People are still struggling, still suffering."
Owens, a Democrat, said yesterday that she had "enthusiastically supported" the project and called her Republican successor's actions "bizarre" and "very unfortunate."
"I would just urge him to sit and talk with these people. It is a wall that is crying out for some artwork."
Chuck Walsh, co-director of ArtWalk, said his group could be flexible with Leopold, "apart from leaving the children out and asking Mr. Belt to radically revise his art," which he said would "take the heart out of it."
"It is huge for those children. At the entrance of the Arundel Center, where people go every day, black and white, that their art will be seen and their name will be recognized as having been a part of this, it's truly remarkable."
Walsh said the group had tried in vain for 10 months to meet with Leopold to discuss the project. Word came in November from the Leopold administration that the county executive had objections.
Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights activist, urged the county executive to keep the promise made to exhibit the mural.
"The damage that's done as part of community relations, far outweigh his opinions," he said.