A special event application from the city of Bloomington to sponsor the annual ‘Wrapped in Love’ display by Middle Way House was approved by the board of public works at its Tuesday meeting.
Middle Way House is a nonprofit that provides services for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking. The display, which is a fundraiser for Middle Way House, features knitted tree sweaters in Bloomington’s downtown.
The knitted sweaters, with various designs and sayings, are wrapped around trees that stand in the public right-of-way.
The approach taken to this year’s ‘Wrapped in Love’ display—with the city as the applicant for a special event permit—is different than in past years.
The difference is related to a new policy that the city was ordered to create by a federal court in connection with a lawsuit filed by Turning Point USA against the city. The lawsuit is about the city’s refusal two years ago to allow the Indiana University chapter of Turning Point to paint a mural reading “All Lives Matter” on Kirkwood Avenue just west of Sample Gates.
The federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against Bloomington, requiring the city to develop a policy regulating how art that is created by private entities can be installed in the public right-of-way.
A key element of Bloomington’s new policy is that no art installations that are expected to last for longer than a week can include “speech,” which includes any letters, words or universally recognized symbols.
In the past, the “Wrapped in Love” display has included designs with various sayings like, “Let love bloom,” among others.
In some past years, the ‘Wrapped in Love’ display has been handled as a special event of Middle Way House. In 2021, Middle Way House was the applicant for the ‘Wrapped in Love’ special event, which was approved as a part of the consent agenda for the Aug. 3, 2021 board of public works meeting.
In 2022, the ‘Wrapped in Love’ installation was approved through an agreement between Middle Way House and the city parks department, based on the idea that trees in the public right-of-way are the purview of the parks department.
The approach taken this year for the ‘Wrapped in Love’ display echoes one of the defenses offered by the city in the federal lawsuit. The city was looking to explain to the court why it allowed three “Black Lives Matter” murals to be pained on city streets, but refused to allow a mural with the words “All Lives Matter.” The “All Lives Matter” slogan is associated with opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
In its court papers, Bloomington argued that “Black Lives Matter” was government speech, not the speech of parties external to the government—which meant that no public forum for all viewpoints had been established by the city, when it allowed the BLM message to appear as a street mural. The court agreed with the city on that point, but not on the city’s claim that it did not generally allow private art generally to be installed in the public right-of-way. In its order, the court pointed to specific examples of such art, including the ‘Wrapped in Love’ display.
This year’s special events application for ‘Wrapped in Love’ says that Bloomington “would like to partner with Middle Way House to use the Wrapped in Love program as a platform for delivering the City’s beliefs.”
The application continues: “Wrapped in Love places sweaters created by area fabric artists on City trees in the public right-of-way which celebrate the values of education, kindness, charity, civility, and respect as well as carry critical information about resources for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.”
At Tuesday’s board of public works meeting, Bloomington arts director Holly Warren read aloud the staff memo accompanying the special events application, which includes the statement: “The City believes that domestic violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking are abhorrent; that unequal treatment of any member of our community or our broader society has no place in the City…”
The three board members did not deliberate on the item before voting unanimously to approve it.
Tuesday’s board resolution says that the city of Bloomington will give Middle Way House annual funding to support the creation and installation of the sweaters for the Wrapped in Love program.
The board’s resolution also says the city will review and approve each sweater design before the sweater can be placed in the public right-of-way. The sweaters are to be placed on trees between Sept. 1 and Oct. 15 each year and can stay in place through March 31 of the following year.
In mid-March of this year, Bloomington’s board of public works denied the application of Turning Point to paint an “All Lives Matter” street mural on Kirkwood, citing its new policy that prohibits speech in art installed by private entities in the public right-of-way.
Next up on the docket for the lawsuit filed by Turning Point is a status conference set for July 20.