Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Murals and Sustainable Design: New Contexts

A new How & Nosm mural in Rochester NY, part of their Wall Therapy program

When it comes to community identity, there is nothing like a mural to trigger dialogue. With the mural movement in full swing almost every large and medium city in our nation now has murals, and new mural organizations and initiatives are popping up everywhere.

From San Luis Obipso to Boston  and Rochester, NY these new murals, and aesthetics, are forcing city councils and residents to struggle with complex issues.

These issues range from first amendment and property rights to sign codes and developing a process to approve designs. These are healthy conversations that promote civic participation and engagement in the arts. Who are we as a people? What images define us? What makes a mural offensive to someone? In July for example a David Choe  mural in Hawai’i was painted over hours after it was finished. Little did local residents know this might have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to be stewards to one of the most important and talented artists of our generation. 

Artist David Choe in his studio. Image: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new ROA mural in Rochester, NY has perked controversy as well. Synthesis Collaborative who hosted the well know artist and many others in a program called Wall Therapy.  The organizers write:

“Essentially, what we are doing is a community-level intervention in the form of mural art in the public space.  The walls are our vehicle for inspiring and rehabilitating our community.  We are intervening visually to address a fundamental collective need of our citizenry, the need for inspiration.  In addition and quite literally, the walls on which our “therapists” will paint are being resurfaced and rehabilitated…given new life and energy.”
ROA in Rochester with Wall Therapy
Photo: Stephen S. Reardon www.uglypancakes.com

Cities that have established mural arts and public arts programs have to contend with these issues and have managed to organize and rally support when controversy arises. With public art it almost always does, and sometimes this is better than being ignored. I think it’s fair to say that most people hope their art inspires, unify and promote all things good. However many well intentioned muralists with no community design and feedback process are running into challenges, especially if they are parachuting in with little knowledge for the places they are working.

My question is what is the responsibility of the artist for contributing to and offering meaning to these conversations – or is it our job to paint and move on?  What is the responsibility of the host agency? Is the responsibility of the host to employ an additional step to site preparation and planning, specifically a Community Arts Integration (CAI) plan? I’ve been watching as this process has taken root since I first started writing about the concept several years ago. In implementing a CAI plan artists and hosts are provided with a wealth of information and strong context for the project.

The idea that artists are critical to the sustainable design and holistic development of our infrastructure is an idea whose time has come. It’s great to see groups like Wall Therapy making the leap towards the inevitable changes we, as a species are engaged in.