Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stim-U-Murals: The New Era of ARRA Murals

Newark NJ: cWOW's "It Takes a Village Mural"-2009  

By Michael B Schwartz (

As we wade through what seems to be a never ending “recession” American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) monies have moved like molasses through the calcified state and federal bureaucracy to the local level. Finally projects and programs are getting started, hammers are starting to swing, welding torches are being fired up, and paint-brushes are swinging into action.

Federal ARRA funding has been used to successfully sustain five mural arts programs and I’m sure there are other examples that will surface in the coming months. Each of the projects below are, or soon will be, employing muralists. These works will become the first round in a new chapter of American mural history; the ARRA Era of Murals.

Arlene Goldbards’ article on CAN: The Long Hot Summer of Service: Community Artists on the Job broke the story on the first use of stimulus dollars for community arts work in Philadelphia, PA and Newark, NJ. These are dollars separate from ARRA funds that were redistributed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Philadelphia, PA

The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program will receive 1.35 million to continue ground breaking youth violence reduction programs, restorative justice and a series of civic engagement projects that will result in the creation of numerous murals. Some examples of this work has already been unveiled and can be seen on the groups website.

Newark, NJ

City Without Walls  in New Jersey is an  amazing organization. In addition to creating new works, they are connecting their work to past traditions, like the work of muralist Ben Shahn. Ben was not only a celebrated photographer, and assistant to Diego Rivera on several projects including the Rockerfeller Plaza mural. Another Ben, Ben Goldman is the executive director of cWOW and a visual artist. What I love about this organization is the spirit of innovation in the face of adversity. You may recall Mr. Goldman as the author of the “Arts Stimulus Plan for New Jersey and the Nation”. This beautiful concise proposal called for one percent of ARRA to be directed towards the arts.

cWOW celebrated seven new works in 2009, with many new projects in the pipeline. I consider this project to be among the most articulate, inspiring and tested programs in the nation. Clearly this model has provided meaningful, and measurable impacts that illustrate just how the arts can be used to “retrofit” our economy.

In addition to these two early success stories news is breaking of other visionary communities who are using murals as part of ARRA. I also looked at a series of roadway and percent for art projects, but have not yet been able to verify that these projects were designating monies specifically towards murals.

Helena, MT

This band shell in Montana will get a new community mural with ARRA funding.

Across the country in Helena, Montana, stimulus money is being used to create a mural in the band shell at Memorial Park. In December they had a community brainstorm meeting, an opportunity for the public to decide what they would like to see in the mural. This process literally practices democracy, and illustrates the power of community arts projects. While there are some critics of this project, a budget has been established for the artwork and the city is moving ahead with a request for proposals process. This is good news for the many talented artists who have made Helena a beacon for culture and creativity.

Carson City, NV

Artists mock up for project proposal.

Another proposed project will bring a history mural to the highways of Carson City Nevada.  The History in Motion Project proposed by the city and Gardeners Reclaiming Our Waysides (GROW) would blend murals with horticultural elements to depict the history and life of the famous Nevada town. Some funds have been secured for the project, and they also are still in the public input phase. You can check out what they are doing, and follow their progress on the City’s website.

Chicago, IL

The Green Hills Community Wall Mural is a "community wall" ceramic mural that will extend the length of the Green Hills Public Library. The mural’s theme will reflect the historical and cultural elements related to the area and it’s residents. You are invited to bring a “small rock or stone from your country of origin and it will be installed in the mural to symbolize the diversity of our Library District”. There are community workshops Monday, March 22nd from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. 

Hartford, CT

The Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant Program is by far my favorite, so I save it for last. While in Phase 1 of this program there were no specific murals funded, the list of projects funded warmed my heart and will be an inspiration to you as well.

They are now in phase two of their process, and it’s an exciting model I hope municipalities will explore. Artists can get grants of $ 5- 25,000 to support their businesses. The grant is intended to help “Arts-centric businesses, organizations and individual artists play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy: they employ people, spend money locally, revitalize neighborhoods, and are a cornerstone of tourism.  As an indirect economic benefit, tourists patronize restaurants, parking lots, hotels, and other businesses, which employ Hartford residents.”

Keep in mind that any community in the country could have done this. Hats off to David Panagore, the Director of the Hartford Development Services , and the Greater Hartford Arts Council. You are a beacon for the nation and deserve an award of the highest merit.

In San Francisco the Department of Human Services is administering federal stimulus funds to cover 100% of wage through September of this year. I know of at least one arts group that has used this program to find a position. You can find out more here.


Each city, town, county and state has taken a different approach with their ARRA funding. Clearly many communities have discovered a way to integrate the arts into their strategy for economic recovery and blazed a path for others to follow.

The mural projects I uncovered using ARRA funds are infused with a democratic spirit. While this process is inherent in the community mural movement, it’s interesting to note this is a very different methodology than that employed by WPA era muralists. We’ll have to wait and see what the long term out-comes are to the ARRA era murals and if they will be compared to the great WPA era murals. 

Looking towards a new decade many continue to aspire for a new framework for cultural policy in the United States. Opportunities exist in the reauthorization of pieces of legislation, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) not the least among them. New sources of funding that promote “community engagement”, “innovation” and “retrofitting” are fertile soil for community artists.

As in the days of our grandparents and great grandparents these are times when we’re forced to lift ourselves up by our own boot-straps. What I’m hoping is that the demonstration projects that are emerging from the grassroots and enlightened cities like Hartford, Helena, Newark, Philadelphia and Carson City pave the way for a new national creative works program, and as described in Art and the Public Purpose one that, “Uses creativity for the common good, engages all of us., builds on cultural memory, puts artists to work to support cultural recovery, stand for free expression and supporting democratic media.”


ben said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the props!


Ben Goldman

Roger Whiting said...

I'm not a big fan of the stimulus, but the WPA resulted in a lot of amazing art, and I imagine this round of government extravagance will have similar results :)

Anonymous said...

Great mention of my former home, Hartford, CT. While I'm sure the two groups mentioned deserve some props, it's generally recognized that the only way the stimulus package was proposed and passed was due to the efforts of Councilman Luis Cotto. A longtime Hartford arts administrator and advocate, he almost single handedly got the over million dollars passed.