A local arts nonprofit soon will be taking over management of the First Amendment Monument on the Downtown Mall after at least two years of no maintenance.
Charlottesville’s City Council voted unanimously recently to transfer the lease to The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative after the organization expressed interest in managing the chalkboard.
The monument, also known as the Free Speech Wall or the community chalkboard, was created by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a Charlottesville-based organization dedicated to defending First Amendment rights and known for its Muzzle awards, which called out censorship across the country.
In 2005, the city leased the space for the monument to the Thomas Jefferson Center. The lease gave the center control of about 120 square feet of the Downtown Mall, including the First Amendment Monument, and required the center to maintain the chalkboard.
The wall was designed for people to write messages with chalk without the threat of censorship, oftentimes political or social messages. The monument has become a rallying place for many protests and demonstrations.
The wall was under the maintenance of the center since its installment, but leading up to 2019, the organization did not appear to be physically maintaining the wall and had seemingly disappeared, no longer holding events and giving out its last Muzzle awards in 2018.
The Thomas Jefferson Center never officially announced its closure, and the news that it was dissolving was quietly buried in a July 2019 press release from the University of Virginia School of Law announcing its First Amendment Clinic that would be partially funded by the center, which was donating its remaining assets to the clinic.
When the organization dissolved, rather than remove the monument as required by its lease, the center decided it would allow another organization to take over management of the wall.
Alan Goffinski, executive director of The Bridge and the Charlottesville Mural Project, said the organization was interested in taking over management of the wall because free speech goes hand-in-hand with artistic expression.
“We view this as an opportunity to steward the project in a positive direction and champion the fact that freedom of expression is something that’s really valuable to every artist and every creator and every culture-shaper that has ever existed,” Goffinski said.
The mission of the Bridge is to be a hub for creativity in Charlottesville, he said.
“We really believe that art is something that should be accessible to everyone and that art and culture are tools to help us learn more about each other, ourselves, the community and the world that we live in,” he said.
Goffinski said the monument is particularly poignant in an area where there has been violence and debate over Confederate monuments.
“We have all sorts of monuments to former slave owners and former Confederates and fighters that are problematic, and here we have a sort of interactive monument, a democratic monument to an ideal that we believe is critical to what we do as an organization,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to highlight the voices of community partners and artists who are doing important things, and we recognize that we can use this as a sort of a venue or an avenue for programming and diversifying and championing expression from all people in all forms,” Goffinski said.
While writings and drawings on the wall cannot be censored, and anyone can write over someone else’s work at any time, The Bridge will be required to clean it once a week.
The lease between the city and The Bridge also requires the organization to take out $1 million in liability insurance and make repairs to the wall. The Bridge also will provide and replenish chalk for people to use to write messages.
“There are several broken panels, I think as many as eight,” Goffinski said. “The estimate on that at this point has come in at just under $10,000 just to repair existing damage that occurred to the structure.”
The Bridge is working with the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to raise money for repairs and maintenance through the Community Chalkboard Fund.
According to the lease, The Bridge reserves the right to conduct up to six of its own special events within the leased area each calendar year. The Bridge will be required to obtain a special events permit from the city, as needed. On a day-to-day basis, the general public will continue to have right of access to use the leased premises, and to use chalk to write messages on the monument.
The Bridge is still waiting on the contract to be formalized by the City Council prior to a planned relaunch of the monument. Goffinski said the organization also is working to coordinate a schedule of volunteers who will be responsible for cleaning the wall periodically and replenishing the chalk supply.
Contingent on COVID-19 social distancing protocols, Goffinski said the organization is planning to have a big celebration in the fall to celebrate the new management of the monument. More information will be released by The Bridge when the date and details have been finalized.
Donations to the Community Chalkboard Fund can be made by visiting tinyurl.com/ezbypfcc.