The Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks is investigating the removal of murals supporting the Black Lives Matter from Patterson Park. In addition, a City Council member has asked Baltimore’s Inspector General to investigate.
Joe and Karley Sgandurra, two Lauraville residents, had brought together a dozen local artists — Black, white and from various backgrounds — to take part. After months of working with the department to secure permits and design approval, the murals were displayed across the park Wednesday afternoon.
But less than 48 hours later, five 4-by-8-foot murals were removed Friday.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the department characterized the situation as a “miscommunication” that occurred “due to a recent change in staff.”
“In addition to restoring the artwork, it has been brought to our attention that a member of our staff has been suspected of conduct not reflective of our values,” according to the statement. “We take such allegations very seriously. All claims will be investigated and addressed.”
The department confirmed in a Facebook comment that that employee had removed the murals.
City Councilman Zeke Cohen has said he has asked Baltimore’s Inspector General to investigate, based on “deeper concerns related to this incident.”
Cohen said in a phone interview that he was “personally concerned that this incident is the tip of the iceberg, that there has been a repeated pattern of flagrant disrespect, racism, homophobia and antisemitism that has largely gone ignored.”
Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said Monday that due to office policy, she could neither confirm nor deny an investigation is underway.
Several artists who spoke to The Baltimore Sun said they were informed Friday morning that murals were being dismantled to be taken to a dump. A park neighbor informed members of a private Facebook group for Patterson Park residents, and word quickly spread.
Joe Sgandurra and one of the artists, Scott Moffett, made their way to the park to prevent additional murals from being taken down. The two found murals broken from their wooden frames and dumped into the back of a ranger truck.
After they got in touch with officials within the department, the murals were reinstalled, Sgandurra said.
He said he and his wife wanted to do something significant after the May death of George Floyd, the Black man who died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The pair, who own a home renovation company, got in touch with a dozen artists and coordinated the project.
“We’ve always had a love for the art community and always tried to look for ways that we can work with them,” Sgandurra said. “To work with all these amazing local artists and spread this message of love and unity was really an awesome opportunity for us.”
But the artists and community members are seeking a clearer explanation for how park employees could not have been made aware of a project that took months to receive approval from the city.
In the hours and days that followed, several artists took to social media to call on the department to provide answers.
In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun, the department elaborated on the removal in a statement Tuesday:
“The miscommunication referenced is due to the employee overseeing the project’s initial coordination leaving the agency. During that transition, an internal process was not followed that would have notified the rangers of the approval of the Right of Entry, resulting in the wrong removal of the artwork.
“Regarding the employee investigation, we legally cannot further comment on an ongoing investigation.”
The department did not identify the employee, and The Sun has been unable to contact them.
In the past few months, artists have dedicated work in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against racial inequality incited by the deaths of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
In June, “Black Lives Matter” was painted in large, red block letters in Patterson Park. A similar display was painted across a two-block section in Washington. But the displays have drawn the ire of many who have not aligned themselves with the movement. Some have gone so far as to deface paintings and tear down murals and signs.
Several artists said they received phone calls on Friday evening and Saturday from Reginald Moore, executive director of the department, as well as Jenny Morgan, who leads government and corporate affairs. Artists said the two apologized for the incident and wanted to coordinate a meeting to discuss compensation for damaged work, as well as other projects to connect their work with the community.
The two sides met Monday to assess the damages to the five murals and discuss how to move forward.
But multiple artists also emphasized their issue wasn’t necessarily about compensation. No artist was paid for the project, and while the damage might not initially look significant — it includes scratches and chipped paint — they said much of it is irreversible. A few murals were also supposed to be displayed in the Reginald F. Lewis Museum after two months.
The artists also expressed frustration that the incident took attention away from the purpose of the project, which was to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and unite members of the community. But they were also pleased to witness the support of local residents.
Reginald Lewis of Park Heights was heartened to hear a resident stood guard by his work to ensure no further damage was caused. Saba Hamidi of Remington, whose mural was initially removed, said a local woman and her husband stashed her work in their home Friday morning to keep it from being thrown away.
“It’s really a beautiful thing because someone of a different color was actually standing behind my mural in the rain,” said Lewis, a Black art teacher in Baltimore. “I felt like that was a great example of what moving forward should look like in 2020.”