Chapel Hill will review giant restaurant art

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 14, 2012 

NC54SIGN1-CHN-121012-HLL

A pedestrian walks close by a large UNC basketball photograph Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, of former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, left, and current UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, right, in a window of the Tobacco Road sports bar soon to open at East 54 on Raleigh Rd./Hwy. 54 in Chapel Hill. A second large sports bar UNC window photograph around the corner from Dean Smith features UNC great Michael Jordan.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

  • What’s next? The Community Design Commission will hold a courtesy review for the East 54 images at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Council Chambers at Town Hall. Another review by the Public Arts Commission will be held at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 9 in the second-floor HR Conference Room at Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

— Everybody knows Dean Smith is a giant.

But a larger-than-life depiction of the legendary coach has some calling for a timeout to decide if the window art is just that or a business sign.

For weeks, an image of Smith at the 1984 ACC playoffs in Greensboro has towered over passing traffic on N.C. 54 south of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. A much younger assistant coach Roy Williams sits beside him.

Around the corner, former Tar Heel and future NBA superstar Michael Jordan clears Georgetown forward Eric Smith to take a shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game in New Orleans.

Tobacco Road restaurant owner Brian Amra said he had the same poster of Jordan in his bedroom growing up.

“They’re big, and they’re pretty famous photos,” he said. “That’s the shot Michael Jordan hit to win the game over Georgetown. The Georgetown player is looking up in disbelief that Jordan’s about to hit the shot over him.”

Tobacco Road, a new 282-seat, full-service restaurant at East 54 on Raleigh Road, opened last week. Amra said he and East 54 developer East-West Partners thought the iconic photos – 11 feet wide and nearly 18 feet tall – would be classy and reflect the essence of Chapel Hill.

Amra and his brothers Alex and Rommie own three Tobacco Road locations in the Triangle. All celebrate ACC teams, but Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski gets top billing at the Durham restaurant, while N.C. State coach Jim Valvano shares the spotlight with Smith and Krzyzewski in Raleigh, he said.

Chapel Hill town staff started looking into potential sign ordinance violations after a resident in the Glen Lennox neighborhood across the street questioned the photos in a letter to the editor.

“So, East West Partners or their tenant at East 54 has seen fit to put up a 10 times life size image of Dean Smith to exhort us to Go, Fight, Win! each time we Glen Lennoxians head out on Raleigh Road,” resident Tom Carson wrote. “Considering the god-like status of Mr. Smith around here, does East West Partners have no shame?”

Town Development Manager Gene Poveromo said the pictures could be considered public art similar to the town’s many murals, although they usually go through a committee review first.

The town’s Community Design Commission will consider the artworks’ aesthetic merits Wednesday and whether they should be regulated under the town’s sign rules. The Public Arts Committee will review the art in January.

If the committees decide the artwork should be regulated as a sign, the photos will only be able to cover 15 percent of the windows.

Amra said the windows in that corner were already blacked out, and the restaurant’s kitchen and dry storage are behind them. East-West Partners decided to post the art and bought the photo rights from Getty Images, an online photo library, he said. The art was printed at Capital Sign Solutions in Raleigh.

“It’s the same as buying the rights to Monet and making a thousand T-shirts,” he said.

East-West representative Ben Perry said they never thought of the art, which sticks to the inside of the windows, as a sign.

Jeffrey York, public and cultural arts administrator, said the town doesn’t define a specific type of visual art or limit an artist’s use of mechanical reproduction.

“I would posit that someone also originally took the photographs in question, and I am pretty sure that that individual thought of him or herself just as much as an artist as the muralist,” York said.

While someone might question the work’s aesthetic merits when compared to a work by photographer Ansel Adams, he said, that can be a slippery slope of subjectivity.

Critics panned Monet’s early work, for instance, as an impression not art, thus helping to define a new movement in painting, he said.

“Should there be guidelines for defining art? If so, who defines it?” York asked.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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