Is graffiti art? Or is it awful?
That's one of the questions that will be raised by a Drayton Hall webinar of a similar name, Art or Awful: The Conservation of Historic Graffiti, taking place this Thursday at 5 p.m.
The event will center on commentary from Stephanie Hoagland, an architectural conservator for Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., who wrote an article that posed intriguing questions about the sociopolitical importance of graffiti. The subject matter is particularly timely, given graffiti's prominence alongside recent Black Lives Matter protests to reject systemic racism and police violence.
Trish Smith, curator of Historic Architecture Resources at Drayton Hall, was inspired to assemble the program after learning how the folks involved with Decatur House in Washington, D.C. handled the graffiti painted on their building's walls. One marking asked, "Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?" Those words were particularly powerful, given that Decatur House, which is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, was constructed as 19th century slave quarters.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Historical Association documented the graffiti in photographs, and issued a statement claiming they "plan to incorporate this new episode in the building's history, including the graffiti from the recent demonstrations." The markings were removed June 4 by "teams from the D.C. government and federal agencies," according to the same statement.
This willingness to place graffiti in a historical context got Smith's attention. After all, Drayton Hall features notable graffiti of its own, including a tag over the mantel in the Great Hall that dates back to 1874. In another part of the house, the name "Simon" is scrawled in black paint.
There are no plans to remove the markings, Smith said.
"We preserve everything," she added. "If it's there, then it's part of the story."
What Smith finds intriguing is the split in public opinion between so-called historic graffiti and its contemporary counterpart.
"People tend to find [the Drayton Hall graffiti] fascinating more than they find it objectionable," she said. "But I doubt the same can be said about reactions to modern graffiti." The curious divide is one of the topics that Hoagland will discuss in the webinar.
Three questions will also be posed:
• If a graffiti artist makes art knowing it's ephemeral, do we have the right to preserve it?
• What are the moral implications of taking graffiti out of context and putting it in a museum or selling it for large sums of money when the artist never gets a dime?
• When does graffiti become historic?
The one-hour event will conclude with a discussion between Smith, Hoagland and attendees. "I definitely don't want it to be a one-way conversation," Smith said.
Art or Awful is part of a series of webinars being presented by the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust. Past online events have drawn anywhere from 25-70 attendees. Like so many other organizations and venues, Smith and her colleagues have found new ways to engage the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. What began as Smith conducting impromptu Facebook Live streams from inside Drayton Hall has turned into a more formal undertaking. The inaugural event in the series, From Black Hands to White Mouths, featured chef Kevin Mitchell exploring the cuisine of enslaved cooks. More recently, a webinar was held at the Hutchinson House, the oldest building on Edisto Island associated with the post-Civil War black community. It ended up being one of the most popular offerings to date.
"The cross-organizational events seem to be doing the best," Smith said. "Anytime we can involve others within the community, it's a good thing."
Smith said the webinar series has been planned through mid-August. Beyond that, a lot is up in the air. In many ways, Smith is letting the public drive the ship — an approach she said has worked so far.
"We're surveying the participants, so a lot of our ideas are coming from the public," she said. "So much of it is us asking them: 'what do you want to know more about?'"