Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Murals vs. Zombies

With bank zombies dominating the news my faith in grassroots cultural development initiatives, specifically murals, grows. Murals create place, a destination, and involve a community process that nurtures individual voices and fosters stewardship. Community murals nourish a sense of renewal, hope, belonging and possibility.

There are some great new sites like Mural Farm that give you an online tour of the many murals produced by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. But even better is going on a bike mural tour, you can meet the artists or even help paint a mural. This is a great example of how murals can help familiarize people with neighborhoods and businesses, spurring on local economic recovery. Clearly just the production of a mural has an economic ripple effect. From paints, scaffolding, brushes, lunches to pay for assistants and artists. Anyone who has worked on a mural can testify to the amount of physical labor - in some cases thousands of hours - it takes to complete a mural. These hours are real work, and as valid as building a straw bail house, rooftop garden, growing local food, or installing solar panels. At this very second artists stand "paintbrush ready" to help revitalize our economy.

Canada is a hotbed of mural activity, and community arts in general. Of the many amazing sites and stories featuring new murals in Canada are the Global Arts and Tourism and Chemainus Festival of Murals sites. I like these sites because they connect mural making to economic revival. The Chemainus Festival of Murals site describes their success:

“More than a quarter of a million dollars has been invested in the mural project by private, corporate, federal, provincial and municipal investors. As a direct result, Chemainus has attracted in excess of one hundred new businesses, 350-450,000 visitors a year and a $3.5 million dinner theatre. From a dependence on a single industry, it has broadened its economic base to offer a range of service and tourist related activities. To everyone’s relief, the mill was rebuilt and modernized, and reopened in 1985. By that time, residents and visitors alike felt that they had proven they could survive the worst of times through their spirit and determination.”
Another great example of using murals to attract tourism and generate economic recovery is Twenty Nine Palms the Oasis of Murals in California. They have received a fair amount of media and for good reason. The murals have spurred attention for the Joshua Tree National Park , located next to the town.

There are many other cities large and small, such as Crescent City California, that offer mural tours and have integrated murals into their overall economic development strategies. I would argue for more murals that practice civic engagement at every level of the conception, design and production of the work if we want to get the full economic and social benefits.

It’s something to think about in these most curious of times, when innovation and creativity are most in need and least supported. Imagine if instead of bailing out zombie banks we invested in cultural creatives and innovators. It would cost much less, produce more and generate long term prosperity, beauty, health and happiness.