Greater Millsboro Art League seeks to showcase artwork at town center

MILLSBORO — America’s constitutional First Amendment has been drawn into play with the Greater Millsboro Art League’s request to showcase artwork at the Millsboro Town Center.

Last October, the town of Millsboro offered to cover electricity and propane costs for one year instead of reducing rent for the art league’s Main Street studio, property owned by the town.

With that support, the art league has expanded its classes and nearly doubled its membership.

“Just as Millsboro has been doing, the Greater Millsboro Art League, we have been recently on a campaign to re-invent ourselves,” said art league member Skip Claiborne in a Jan. 6 presentation to Millsboro council. “Council was so gratuitous to help us … we were able to funnel our resources into other things.”

Now, the league wants to partner with the town to showcase member artwork at the Millsboro Town Center.

“The art displays will provide an opportunity for the town to showcase its residents’ talent and at the same time reinforce its partnership with the Greater Millsboro Art League,” Mr. Claiborne said.

League member Suzanne Worrell said, “We know it will require a fair amount of cooperative effort to think through exactly what the exhibits would be. But we have some thoughts in mind.”

Millsboro Town Manager Sheldon Hudson said the staff was open to considering the proposal.

“I think from a staff perspective we are open to considering this proposal,” he said Mr. Hudson. “My only reservation, personally, is concerns about First Amendment. You know, not that we would ever think that the Millsboro Art League would do this, but if you have another organization down the road that wanted to display something that was maybe considered lewd or pornographic or something of that nature, it can always be a little delicate … for the First Amendment.”

Attorney Mary Schrider-Fox, Millsboro’s solicitor, offered existing case law on the topic, pointing to the government speech doctrine, which in American constitutional law says that the government is not infringing the free speech rights of individual people when the government declines to use viewpoint neutrality in its own speech.

Ms. Schrider-Fox said there have been some different results in various districts and jurisdictions throughout the country about some of the First Amendment issues that surround public art displays.

“The type of public space that you are in makes a difference, and then whether or not it’s part of town-sponsored speech,” said Ms. Schrider-Fox. “But the current trend appears to be to uphold the government speech doctrine, that will allow, if it is like a town-sponsored program or town contest, something like that to identify the parameters of your contest or the parameters of your public display. And then to regulate that.”

As an example, Ms. Schrider-Fox shared a case that made it to federal court involving a congressional contest where high school kids entered artwork and someone from each state was chosen to display their artwork in the Capitol building in Washington.

“There was one young person’s whose artwork was on display and some people objected to what they thought was anti-police sentiment involved in his painting. And it was removed. That actually did make it to court,” said Ms. Schrider-Fox.

The court “did uphold the government’s ability to regulate that and to say, ‘We didn’t feel that content was appropriate.’ And in that situation, there were some parameters around this contest …,” Ms. Schrider-Fox said.

Ms. Schrider-Fox said the art league is “right on track in their request in that they are talking about essentially jointly developing a program with town hall where you would have some parameters. You don’t want to just jump into this.”

The town acted on her recommendation to appoint a committee to work with the art league. Appointed by Millsboro Mayor Michelle Truitt, the committee includes councilman Jim Kells, Mayor Truitt and councilman Bradley Cordrey, who will serve as committee chair.

Mr. Claiborne said many exhibits are being considered, but preliminary thoughts include displays linked to specific historic Millsboro places as well as seasonal themes, noting Black History, Fourth of July and Christmas as examples.

“Our goal is to put community first and to bring people from surrounding communities into Millsboro. And it is working for far,” said Mr. Claiborne. “All exhibits, if you decide to do this, will be mutually discussed and agreed between representatives of the town hall and the Greater Millsboro Art League before anything is done. So, we’d have a plan in place so that we could have things done correctly.”

Additionally, Ms. Schrider-Fox said her research showed there are other towns that do have town hall art display, with rules and regulations.

“I don’t think we’d be in the constitutional weeds if we do this correctly,” said Ms. Schrider-Fox.