Mural Arts Philadelphia — which was founded in 1984 as a municipal anti-graffiti program run on a shoestring — has evolved into a public art juggernaut behind more than 3,000 projects across the city and an $8 million annual budget.
Now, it's going national.
Mural Arts Institute is a consultancy that will train and support organizations around the country and internationally in community-based public art-making. The vision is to build capacity for similar work in other cities, while also generating revenue to support even more projects in Philadelphia.
But Jane Golden, Mural Arts' executive director, said the motivation is not just financial.
"We want to do it in a way that there's an exchange of information. It's not like Dunkin' Donuts setting up a franchise," she said.
"Part of it is about sharing what we've learned, part of it is about supporting colleagues around the country, part of it is drawing people to Philadelphia to learn here, part of it is challenging ourselves to learn about innovative practices around the globe — and part of it is diversifying our revenue stream, because the question of how we sustain ourselves is always present."
About $1.5 million of Mural Arts' budget derives from city funds.
The organization commissioned market research from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, which projected that the Mural Arts Institute would be profitable after two years and that by its fifth year, it would yield close to $100,000 that could be reinvested in Philadelphia.
The institute is launching this year with a two-year initiative that will bring Mural Arts expertise to bear on projects in Detroit, Akron, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn. Plans also include the creation of a learning lab and, starting this fall, an annual symposium to build the field of community-based public-art-making.
The idea was born out of Mural Arts' experience. The organization has for years fielded requests for support from organizations around the country and internationally. Paid consulting services have ranged from $1,000, for a full-day immersion into Mural Arts' Philadelphia practices, up to $40,000 for comprehensive on-site support.
Last year, civic leaders in Atlanta came to Philadelphia to tour the mural program, and later commissioned Mural Arts to work with a local nonprofit, WonderRoot, on projects for the neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City. The areas have struggled with disinvestment, crime, vacancies and underperforming schools, but are seeing an infusion of public and private investment associated with plans to build a new football stadium.
Mural Arts staff visited Atlanta, ran workshops for the organization and for local artists and community members, and provided technical and strategic support — everything from mural-making methodologies to engaging funders.
Chris Appleton, executive director of WonderRoot, said the project was a way residents felt they could have a say in the transformation of their community.
"Residents were interested in the ways that murals and public art could play a role in representing narratives and elevating community identity from a residents' point of view," Appleton said.
He said the result of the collaboration was much more significant than just the two murals.
"Atlanta's creative place-making field is stronger as a result," Appleton said. "One of the things we learned through this process is the intangible value of dreaming big and aligning collaborations beyond traditional partnerships … which has allowed for longer-term initiatives and some major citywide projects to take root."
That, said Golden, is the ideal.
"We get plenty of requests to just come and do a mural somewhere," she said, but that is not the goal. "We're always looking for that kind of catalytic quality."
The institute will look to replicate that this year, thanks to the grant that will put $100,000 into projects in the three cities, which will be conceived and executed by local organizations with Mural Arts support.
In Akron, the institute will work with local groups ArtsNow and the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition on a public-art project for Summit Lake, a community that's been affected by disinvestment, white flight, and the aftermath of industrial contamination, but that has been targeted as a site for investment by philanthropic and civic leaders.
In Memphis, it will work with the UrbanArt Commission and Clean Memphis in two impoverished neighborhoods, Frayser and Uptown, to develop public-art initiatives meant to combat blight and lift up the community.
And in Detroit, the institute will support two organizations, CultureSource and Live6 Alliance, working in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, an area that's undergoing one of the city's most significant redevelopment efforts.
"They've encountered uncertainty by longtime residents who feel the project is potentially erasing the community's history and culture," Mural Arts' Caitlin Butler said. "Arts and culture is seen as an important method for including community voices as the project unfolds."
She said Mural Arts' effort to monetize its expertise will hopefully unfold more like a research institute than a corporate consultancy.
"We'd like, once it's up and running, to have different types of fellows or people in residence: researchers, writers. It will be something that benefits Mural Arts, our partners and the field, an approach to raising the bar around the practices we do."