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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Art makes cents (and other good things)


In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there’s a mural around every corner. They’re everywhere! Since 1984, Mural Arts Philadelphia (MAP) has created more than 3,600 murals on building exteriors across the city. “We always say that art ignites change,” says Jane Golden, MAP’s executive director. “There is something deeply catalytic about the work.”

And it seems researchers agree. Studies show public art has a host of benefits for communities, including combatting feelings of anxiety and social isolation. When locals help create public art, these effects are amplified. A 2018 London survey found that 84% of respondents believed being involved in public art projects benefitted their wellbeing.

Public art also provides economic benefits, including new jobs and extra tourism. Art-focused bus and walking tours have become more popular in dozens of cities recently, from London to Sao Paulo to Austin, Texas, where the city-led Art in Public Places program has been funding public art for more than 30 years.

Elsewhere, public art is used to improve public safety. For example, in 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio, non-profit organisation ArtWorks created a permanent, illuminated art installation to light a popular walking trail in a particular neighbourhood. While it had aesthetic appeal, it also improved the neighbourhood’s walkability and residents’ safety after dark. And it created jobs and an apprenticeship program. Since its founding in 1996, the organisation has employed more than 4,000 young people, aged 14–21, and 3,000 professional artists and creatives in art projects throughout the city.

“Our apprentices are being mentored by professional artists on the job,” explains Sydney Fine, senior director of impact at ArtWorks. “So beyond being an arts non-profit, we are also in many ways a career-readiness, positive youth development organisation.”

One of the most meaningful results of public art is that it creates what urban designer Mitchell Reardon calls “community fingerprints” — spaces that make people feel represented, that foster community ties, and that give people a sense of ownership and belonging in their neighbourhoods.

As a senior planner at Vancouver-based urban planning and design consultancy Happy City, Reardon has seen how public art serves communities. “Often, we look to public art as a way to address a challenge that a city is looking to solve — say, a transportation issue or safe streets — while doing so in a way that is going to be meaningful for a broader cross-section of people,” he explains.

In the US, public art depicting American communities carries on an artistic tradition that blossomed almost a century ago, when the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Great Depression-era New Deal agency, began funding the visual arts. Through a program called the Federal Art Project (FAP), WPA employed more than 10,000 artists, who created a significant body of public art, including thousands of murals, between 1935 and 1943.

Victoria Grieve, an historian of visual culture in the US and author of The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, says supporters of FAP shared a belief in “the relationship between the arts and the daily lives of the American people, and the educational, social, and economic benefits of widespread cultural access.”

Many of the murals produced during the period represented this ethos and belonged to an emerging artistic tradition called American Scene Painting, a style of realism inspired by American history, mythology, and culture. FAP murals commissioned for airports, post offices, and public schools depicted the everyday lives and contributions of working-class Americans, American immigrants, and communities of colour. Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, author of Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era, notes that the program has created needed opportunities for interracial cultural exchange and allowed artists of colour to exercise “cultural self-determination”. New Deal funding and increased attention to public art has allowed more artists — Native American, Chicano, Black, and Asian American — to paint their communities into American art and to also allow underrepresented communities to see themselves, perhaps for the first time, on the walls of their cities. Today, MAP and ArtWorks carry on the spirit of that work.

Fine says a mural of Cincinnati-based civil rights activist Louise Shropshire on the side of a recreation centre has helped turn the building into a vibrant community hub. The mural was created in 2019 as part of a new quality-of-life plan for the neighbourhood. “The main focus of the plan is increasing safety and wellness,” explains Fine. “Murals have been a part of that. They document the important historical figures that have come from a neighbourhood . . . which then further activates that neighbourhood,” she explains.

Both MAP and ArtWorks take care to ensure locals feel represented in the murals. In Cincinnati, this process takes an average of eight months. At MAP, things move much faster: most of its murals begin with an application filed by someone living in the community where a project will go. They’re expected to rally a community around a project before applying. After that, creating a mural takes only four to eight weeks.

The good thing is that the effects of the artwork last long after the paint has dried. For example, a mural in West Philadelphia depicts a person alone in a small raft on a turbulent sea — a metaphor for the feelings that locals who had contemplated suicide described to James Daniel Burns, a staff artist at MAP and the lead artist on the project. The mural, completed in 2012, was a two-year-long collaboration between Mural Arts, the Department of Behavioural Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It also engaged more than 1,200 community members. It was meant to shed light on youth suicide rates in Philadelphia, which were rising at the time, and provide a voice for survivors, attempters, and their families and friends.

Organisations such as MAP and ArtWorks join dozens of other public art organisations, including the Bay Area Mural Program in Oakland, California; the Portland Street Art Alliance in Portland, Oregon; and the Chicago Public Art Group in Chicago, Illinois, all of which aim to help create a sense of communal ownership over spaces, allowing their communities to see themselves represented on the walls of their cities.

“I think a city that is vibrant and thriving has art right at the centre,” Golden says.

TOP Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman

ABOVE A selection of murals in Philadelphia


| WATCH Restored Spaces

We always say that art ignites change. There is something deeply catalytic about the work. I think a city that is vibrant and thriving has art right at the centre.

Jane Golden


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