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Mural Arts Program Case Study


Before coming to Penn, I had been exposed to the concept of “socially-engaged art” and interested in the intersection between art and social impact. However, I was never sure what these phrases entailed. Once I discovered the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to igniting social change through art, and learned about the Penn course “Big Pictures: Mural Arts” — co-taught by muralist Shira Walinsky and the director of the program, Jane Golden Heriza — I immediately applied, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how exactly art can impact people’s lives. Of course, the opportunity to paint an actual mural was very appealing as well. This class exceeded my expectations.

“Mural Arts” is an Academically-Based Community Service Course that aims to “integrate service with research, teaching, and learning, and improve the quality of life in the community.” It is offered through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and cross-listed by the Urban Studies and Fine Arts programs. Last semester, the course was comprised of multiple components, each of which provided a distinct insight into the relationship between mural-making and social impact. Readings and research informed us about the history, theory, pedagogy, and case studies of murals and social practice art; several field trips to West Philadelphia, Southeast Philadelphia, and Center City to see murals of various styles in person allowed us to experience the urban environment beyond campus and get to know the different communities of Philadelphia. Guest speakers, including project directors and staff artists from the Mural Arts Program, would frequently come to class and share their knowledge about the organization as well as their experience of working on specific community art projects (Art Education, Restorative Justice, and Porch Light). A site visit to City Hall was one of the highlights of the course and provided the rare opportunity to meet with Councilwoman Cindy Bass. We asked for her opinions on Philadelphia murals from the city government’s perspective, in which she emphasized the beautification of neighborhoods and the social and economic impact murals have effected.
 

Philly Painting by Haas & Hahn. Photo by Steve Weinik.

About the Project 

Mural Arts was thrilled to host world famous Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, also known as Haas & Hahn, for a year-long artist residency in Philadelphia. Haas & Hahn are best known for transforming urban landscapes around the world with vibrant artworks, most notably in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

That spirit of transformation is at the heart of both the artists’ work and of Mural Arts collaboration with a range of funding and civic partners to revitalize and re-energize one of Philadelphia’s oldest commercial corridors, a section of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia at the intersection of Lehigh Avenue. A larger economic development strategy, spearheaded by Darrell Clarke, has also engaged the city’s Department of Commerce and the Planning Commission. Essential to the project’s success is the collaboration of local partners: the Village of Arts and Humanities that is hosting the artists’ residency; Diane Bridges of NET CDC; and others to build trust within the community. The team of partners and individuals also includes: Interface Studio and dozens of local business and community representatives.

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Over the course of their residency, Haas & Hahn were challenged to consider design not just for a block but for an entire commercial corridor. Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, a major partner in this effort, recognizes the potential of a major project like this to radiate optimism and serve as catalyst for additional positive change and commercial potential.

Based out of their temporary digs just off of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia, the artists captured important images of the neighborhood, both figurative and literal, and ultimately developed a color palette based on patterns of recurring primary and secondary hues that reflect the neighborhood and the city’s quintessentially rich and complex character. In developing the designs for the work in Germantown, they reshaped and scaled these swatches of “native” color to transcend the architecture of the individual buildings, and lend uniformity to a lively but visually incoherent stretch of the avenue.

Philly Painting from the air. Photo by Iwan Bann.

Ultimately, Haas & Hahn want to bring people into the community — customers to the local business, more businesses to the street and more people employed through both the efforts and results of the transformation. They want to help make the neighborhood the vibrant place it once was. They see the project as an urban experiment, to see what happens to the post-modern American city and to see how we value and define our neighborhoods, essentially using the project “to market the community.” The artists have also developed a project logo that they plan to have copyrighted to the zip code, so that local merchants can take advantage of the increased attendance in the area.

Reflected on a Septa bus. Photo by Jon Kaufman.

In addition to the painting process, which will engage seven local apprentices, five full time crew members (with the hope the team will grow), and five Guild participants, other community members are actively participating in production and marketing. Local merchants and the Director of NET CDC will serves as spokespersons. Germantown Avenue merchants have printed the painting team’s uniform and merchandise.

As exciting as the project is, Philly Painting the Avenue (the working title of the Germantown Avenue project) is not without its challenges: architectural, human and logistical. The commercial corridor between Huntingdon and Somerset is characterized by small businesses and not-for-profits, vacant buildings, wildly varied signage scale, styles and surfaces, deteriorating facades and cornices with boarded up windows. The building owners and merchants have a predictably wide range of color and design preferences that are rooted in what they sell, where they come from, and how they perceive the larger design concept. And finally, Germantown Avenue has a variety of power and utility lines, SEPTA’s venerable “route 23” and the relics related to the trolley tracks associated with it, and parking on both sides of the street. As complex as the challenges are, however, the potential is palpable. As the artists and project staff have returned weekly to canvas merchants and seek their approval, the enthusiasm for the potential of this project to create enthusiasm and cohesion through art has grown with more and more merchants wanting to participate.

Philly Painting Case Study by Judie Gilmore

Additional Project Photos 

  • Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Artist Felix St. Fort. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Assistant Artist "Milk." Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Jon Kaufman.

  • Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Jon Kaufman.

  • Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.

  • Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.

Philly Painting Project Team. Photo by Jeron Koolhaas.