The Purpose And Value Of Cultural Rehabilitation Of Buildings And Neighborhoods Through Art

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The purpose and value of cultural rehabilitation of buildings and neighborhoods through art

Gamcheon Culture Village scene located in Busan city of South Korea.

By Adobe Communications Team

Posted on 09-15-2021

When nationally-known muralist Meg Saligman starts a project, she sees herself as a “vessel with a vision.” From her famous Common Threads mural in Philadelphia, which juxtaposes high school students with baroque beauties, to Chattanooga’s We Will Not Be Satisfied Until — a colossal community portrait on the side of a high-rise building — Saligman has used photos and editing apps to turn underutilized buildings into elegant visions of the city.

“I believe in the power of putting everyone in the pathway of beauty,” she said. “Murals can create landmarks and gathering points.”

Murals give life to neighborhood beautification projects, transforming abandoned structures, blighted buildings, and everyday architecture. This public art offers creators, designers and photographers ways to individualize spaces that attract other artists, foot traffic, and economic activity.

Examples of art-based cultural rehab

Some of the most famous mural programs in the country have turned these works into must-see attractions and anchors of cultural transformation. Mural Arts Philadelphia, founded in 1986, has supported community art projects and iconic work, like Saligman’s Common Threads. It has become a catalyst, employing hundreds of artists, attracting designers and artists to the City of Brotherly Love, and serving as a tourist magnet.

In Miami, the Wynwood Walls graffiti and mural program kickstarted by developer Tony Goldman who saw an opportunity in the flat, windowless facades of warehouses and created a global art phenomenon that has attracted designers, artists, and creative businesses.

Not every program has to reinvent an entire neighborhood. In San Francisco’s Dogpatch, the Minnesota Street Project remade a series of adjoined warehouses into an arts center and gallery, giving muralists a space to work and create in the ever-expensive Bay Area.

As a social touchstone

Murals also serve as important signifiers for a neighborhood, as well as nodes of community interaction and connection. Pennsylvania’s Fresh Paint program funds small-scale local murals dedicated to community revitalization, and New York City’s active Community Mural Project, has enlisted artists to create photographic and graphic art in and around hospitals, promoting wellness and neighborhood connections.

Other initiatives have served as raw and revealing portraits of social issues. In Oakland, father-son artists Mike and John Manente created the “People of Oakland” series — temporary, billboard-style images of the city’s population, including the unhoused — to raise empathy and awareness.

For beautification

How does art benefit the community? At their most basic level, portrait murals reinvigorate neighborhoods with public “creativity”, boosting moods and civic pride. In Buffalo, New York, a common narrative has played out — a once-thriving industrial hub slowly filled with vacant lots, abandoned homes, and boarded-up businesses. But a series of public investments in mural art turned its aging buildings into a vibrant public canvas, which has brought back a swagger and sense of ownership for the town. One mural boldly states, “Keep Buffalo a Secret,” despite it’s growing reputation in the street art world.

To be unique

The power of murals comes, in part, from their scale — from building-sized artwork to quirky, nearly hidden gems. Organizations like Artful Streets in Brattleboro, Vermont, focus on temporary, agile artwork that fills in the gaps in the cityscape, with murals and other work serving as stations for pop-up events. In Austin, this year’s Be Well project, which placed uplifting work in the gaps in and around a highway underpass, promoted hope and mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

To educate

Cultural heroes and neighborhood history offer a unique lens into urban culture, especially when using documentary photography, and they have been the subjects of some of the nation’s most adored murals. San Diego’s Chicano Park, now a National Historic Landmark, offers a walking tour through seven acres of community artwork depicting and celebrating Latin American history, Mesoamerican influences, and mythology.

The same can be said of smaller projects across the country, from the Red Can graffiti jam in the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation to Colorado Springs’s Conejos Mural, a combination art and storytelling project where the impact of arts on communities comes in the form of historical preservation. Other mural projects focus on climate change and the need for action — some even use heat-reducing paint to help combat the urban heat island effect.

As a creative outlet

Artwork reflecting communities often works best when it is partially created by the neighborhood as well. Studies show they reinforce community identity and can even collectively solve social problems. Large-scale community art days typically enlist professional artists to design and prepare murals, with residents helping finish in paint-by-number fashion. Wilmington, Delaware’s citywide mural project engaged locals to finish three murals across the city.

Besides creativity and collaboration, artists recommend a handful of tools for creating photo-based mural projects, in addition to standard painting materials and tools:

To create jobs

An important impact of arts on communities is employment for local creators. ArtWorks Cincinnati has funded the work of young local creatives for 25 years, offering jobs and apprenticeships to 14-21-year-olds. Thus far the nonprofit has funded the creation of more than 200 permanent outdoor murals and 14,000 art projects. Recruiting local talent has paid dividends for other cities as well: Rockford, Illinois’s Cre8ivused locals to beautify downtown — Syracuse, New York found that directing relief money towards murals was a smart way to encourage economic recovery.

To reduce waste

In Ajo, Arizona, a former mining town searching for opportunity used mural art as its calling card for change. The city’s formerly overlooked network of alleys ended up being perfect canvases for creative placemaking, and now the small desert town, lined with public art, has become a travel destination. Just ask those who live in the building with Saligman’s Common Threads on the side — the unused educational facility is now an upscale loft building, encouraging potential tenants to “live in a landmark.”

To drive Creativity for All

What unites all of these different types of mural programs is the alchemy of art: where creators unleash their imagination using photos and paint to transform communities, to build a better neighborhood, and a better world. Creativity is not exclusive or a special gift endowed only upon a lucky few. It belongs to everyone — it’s everywhere, and ultimately it connects us all.

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