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Mural Arts Philadelphia: Empowering Communities through Art

From the first hospital established in 1732 to the first meeting of the U.S. Congress in 1789 to the first zoo opened in 1847, Philadelphia has long been a city of national firsts. According to a 2007 New York Magazine article, the City of Brotherly Love was also the birthplace of modern graffiti, with the earliest examples appearing there in the 1960s. Fast forward to the 1980s, by which time graffiti had spread to many urban centers across the U.S., prompting politicians to react punitively toward both the graffiti itself and its makers. 

Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor, took office in January 1984. Not surprisingly, among his many campaign promises was a pledge to reduce the city’s graffiti blight. What made Goode’s solution exceptional, however, was that he saw an opportunity to empower the youth of his city by harnessing the outlaw energy of their graffiti writing to fuel mural projects aimed at beautifying the city. 

To that end, Goode authorized a small program, then known as the Anti-Graffiti Network, tapping a young artist named Jane Golden to run it. “I suddenly had to very quickly think about, ‘Why are young people writing on walls? And how do we create a program that is not punitive, that’s supportive, and can help achieve the mayor’s mission, which is to make Philadelphia a more beautiful city?’” recalled Golden, who had previous experience working with murals on the West Coast. 

In the 30 years since, that small clean-up program has bloomed into Mural Arts Philadelphia: part city agency, part nonprofit, and longtime NEA grantee. Through the organization’s work, the city itself has bloomed with thousands of murals and other public artworks. Murals run the gamut of styles, sizes, and messages, from the colorful dreamscape of How to Turn Anything into Something Else, a collaboration between the artist collective Miss Rockaway Armada and local schoolchildren; to Legacy, which was partially completed by incarcerated men using portable materials; to a mural honoring the late 60 Minutes journalist Ed Bradley, a Philadelphia native son. On the sides of restaurants, above community gardens, and in countless parking lots, the murals celebrate Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and the power of community. 

People install a panel of a large black and white mural in Philadelphia

Mural Arts teaching artist Brad Carney and students from Philadelphia's Northeast High School install a panel of artist Joe Boruchow's Smoke Signals at 448 North 10th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik, courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia

While Mural Arts has roughly 70 ongoing community mural projects, the citywide initiative is actually about much more than murals. Golden, who is now Mural Arts’ executive director, and her 54-member team are also shepherding a floating art and ecology lab as envisioned by artist Meejin Yoon for the Schuylkill River; Radio Silence, a podcast and radio series by Michael Rakowitz created in tandem with the city’s Iraqi refugee community; and Porch Light, a collaboration with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services to provide programs at the intersection of arts, recovery, and healing. Mural Arts also has programs addressing arts education and the criminal justice system, and offers city tours through which visitors can explore what Mural Arts calls “the world’s largest outdoor art gallery. ” 

Despite the diversification of its activities, the organization’s core mission remains the same, according to Golden. “We’re addressing the need for creativity in people’s lives—the opportunity to look at some of our city’s more intractable problems and address them through a creative means,” she emphasized. 

Golden also acknowledged that public funding support has been crucial to fostering and growing Mural Arts. “We have been honored to receive funds from the NEA, and feel that it is invaluable…. Government funding for us is a platform and a catalyst.” 

Through her work with Mural Arts, Golden has developed an understanding of the utility of art. Yes, public art can make a community more aesthetically appealing. But even more essential, however, is the way in which the process of making art can powerfully give voice to community members. When the people of a community are actively engaged in creating the artwork that beautifies the built environment in which they live, they can see their own hopes, dreams, and concerns writ large on their local landscape, which in turn empowers them to ask for and make change at a deeper level. 

A man on an outdoor stage in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia with people behind him

A performance of Radio Silence by Michael Rakowitz at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall on July 30, 2017. Photo by Steve Weinik, courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia

Golden explained, “We’ve created over 4,000 works of art since 1984. It’s really like holding up a mirror to people and saying, ‘Your life counts.’ We’ve seen people who were engaged in a public art process be impacted in a profound way because they have not been used to seeing their voices count or matter in a public way.” 

That impact is not merely anecdotal. As Golden explained, a four-year evaluation of the Mural Arts Porch Light program by Yale Medical School noticed a phenomenon called “collective efficacy.” In other words, the study revealed that after collaborating in large-scale public art projects, participants felt ready to tackle other changes. “It seemed to have an effect of awakening people to possibilities,” said Golden. 

James Burns, a Mural Arts staff artist, has seen that awakening firsthand. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Burns has been collaborating with a group of military veterans for the past year on a mural that will emblazon one wall of the city’s Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. Most of the veterans in the group are dealing with some degree of post-traumatic stress—as did Burns’ veteran father—in addition to other health issues resulting from their military service. 

Though some of the veterans were initially skeptical about engaging with the arts, all have come to agree that working on the mural has been transformative. As Operation Desert Storm veteran David Allen affirmed, “This mural makes us feel like we matter. I think that’s important to our mental health.” 

Burns thinks that the power of the project comes from its collaborative ethos. Even though he was ultimately responsible for drafting a design, everyone in the group had a say in what it should look like, and had the power to reject Burns’ initial drafts. Through a series of workshops that included a communal cooking class, terrarium-making, and lessons in how to use color, Burns was able to tease out from the nearly 20 participants what they wanted as the central themes of their mural. As Allen explained, “Part of the workshop process was to determine how best to display our internal wounds, whatever we are going through in the process of recovery.” 

Many of the group members also appear as recognizable figures in the mural, further acknowledging that the artwork is about them having their say. 

A man helps young children complete a group painting

Military veterans work with youth to paint the city’s Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. Photo by Steve Weinik, courtesy of Mural Arts Philadelphia

As with all Mural Arts projects, the VA mural also enabled the initial group of participants to engage with the larger Philadelphia community. Once the initial design was completed, Mural Arts hosted a number of “paint days” where the public was invited to learn about the mural, meet the workshop participants, and help paint individual sections of the mural, which had been sectioned and simplified so that everyone regardless of age or skill could help. After some additional detail work by Burns and a small cadre of artists, the mural will be installed at the hospital, prompting yet another community celebration. 

Several of the workshop participants acknowledge that working on the mural has made an indelible impact on their lives. Former Army Reserves and National Guardsman Sandra Smith, said, “It’s like a new beginning for me. It’s a breakthrough as a matter of fact…. Some of us have become tour guides at the art museum through this.” 

For many, the mural is also now part of their family legacy. “It’s like a baby to us. This is going to be ours. My family, my grandkids can pass by this wall and say, ‘There goes Pop Pop.’ That’s what I like about it. It gives me something to look forward to,” said Ronald Brooks, a Vietnam vet. 

Mural Arts’ projects would not be possible without partnerships. In addition to working with community members and private partners, the group has worked with many city departments over the years, from the Department of Recreation to the Department of Prisons to the Department of Commerce. Golden noted that she is continually surprised by the city’s openness toward “creativity and innovation and artmaking.” 

“We all feel like public servants working on behalf of the citizens in Philadelphia. And that is really so important to us,” said Golden. “In a sense our work has become almost the visualization of democracy. It’s about people’s lives in the city in the deepest way possible.” 

In our latest issue of NEA Arts, learn about other projects and organizations empowering their communities through public art.

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