My View: Minneapolis needs a mural arts program
I have one foot in art-making, as a muralist, and one foot in education, as an art teacher and professor. In both of these endeavors, I'm always thinking about art's relevance. Now more than ever I see a need for artists to consider how their work engages the public.
My worlds of teaching and art-making intersect at my ultimate goal: to start a public mural program in Minneapolis similar to the very successful one in Philadelphia. I envision a program that would reach and teach the city's youth and employ professional artists to help guide large-scale placemaking
projects of relevance.
The Philly Model
is an amazing city investment in art, youth, artists, and communities. It began as a way for graffiti offenders to fulfill their community service obligation by learning a more acceptable form of public artistic expression through apprenticeship. That program took kids who were at risk of being repeat offenders or dropouts and gave them a varied set of skills--along with an opportunity to work on a community mural project of importance and dignity.
Thanks to the dedication of founder Jane Golden, city funding, and community support, Philadelphia now has over 3,000 professionally sanctioned murals that involve more than 1,500 young people every year. Mural tours now draw people to a city where blank-sided brick buildings are a thing of the past.
It's similar to what Juxtaposition Arts
in North Minneapolis does on a much smaller scale--instead of just being an art center where kids drop in and do art projects, Juxtaposition teaches around a dozen students a semester to be artists and to sell their work. Additionally, some students are paid to produce creative goods like posters and screen-printed t-shirts.
Oh, What a Mural Can Do
Young people would have a very rich educational experience working on murals here. Murals are large-scale evidence of learning, skill, and accomplishment, proof of a knowledge of mathematics and of its practical application to quantities of material, budgets, and scale factors. Completing murals demonstrates an ability to collaborate with the various parties involved in what is typically a community effort. They are the pictorial proof of a community's creativity and its ability to turn its histories and voices into epic placemaking images.
We could start this Mural Arts program in North Minneapolis, which is in danger of losing its high school and displacing its youth. Given the post-tornado transition that the Northside is going through, there is a whole set of unknowns that we as artists, problem solvers, and people invested in the community can help clarify. We could bring art to unnoticed spaces, turning them into places if interest, pride and beauty. We might say, "Nothing's going into this building right now, but it's got a 20-foot wall. Let's show that we care by making that wall beautiful."
The Resource Center of the Americas
building on Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis is a good example of how "proactive" public art can be. When the building was up for sale, many worried that the gorgeous Mexican-themed mosaic on one of its walls would be destroyed or ignored in the terms of the sale. People took ownership of the mosaic and were willing to go to bat for this building because of the artwork. It's one of the most beautiful pieces of outdoor art in the city, and it has transformed what was once just a wall into a destination, permanently increasing the value of the building. Murals have this same transformative power. If you have high-quality murals that reflect and engage the communities they are in, you're going to have an army of people defending them too.
Walls: From Blank to Beautiful
Where would the murals live? Well, Philadelphia is very lucky in that respect. Because of the nature and history of the city, it has many enormous brick row buildings connected to one another. When one gets torn down, the one right next to it is a huge blank canvas of brick. The murals can be seven- or eight-story masterpieces. We may not have many structures like that in Minneapolis but we have many places murals could go. Of course we would want to choose spaces on buildings that are unlikely to get knocked down, and we would start small. On the first project, we don't want to have kids hanging from tall buildings in window-washer harnesses! Eventually, though, bigger is better, for visibility and impact.
Imagine a huge mural depicting one of Northside's heroes--the civil rights activist, public education proponent, and humanitarian W. Harry Davis
, for example. An artistically rendered image of Davis could become an icon for our community and a window into our history while creating a place to visit and to appreciate. Such a work would be just the beginning. With a Mural Arts program in place, we would soon be encountering these murals, these mirrors of our communities, all over the city.
How It Could Work
A couple of years ago the Minneapolis Public Schools started a campaign called We Want You Back
, targeting kids who have left the system. Our mural program could contribute to this effort. We could base the program at North High School and begin by working with high-school dropouts. For many different reasons, North High has gone from an enrollment of 1,300 students back when I was in high school to fewer than 200 now.
These students have all gone somewhere; some of them are attending suburban schools, but others are dropping out. We could offer them a half-day every week? in this apprentice mural program. We might devote three hours in the afternoon to designing and planning the mural in collaboration with the community, and then on weekends the whole team would work on it together. Maybe we could provide the apprentices with a stipend for their weekend work.
That's just one possible scenario, of course; there are many ways to approach the program's structure and function, and we still need to figure out the best setup. But to me it makes the most sense to work with youth, especially with the ones who don't have these sorts of arts programs at their fingertips--the kids who spend most of the summer in their living rooms.
I'm brainstorming and collaborating with another artist, Greta McLain, an MFA student at MCAD, and she and I are pretty much on the same page with this dream of ours. We're trying to figure out the best starting points and timing.
City officials are reviewing proposals right now to re-envision and redesign
the North/Northeast Minneapolis corridor along the Mississippi River. The Lowry Avenue North Bridge opens next summer. There is definitely momentum on this side of the city to get things started and improve the quality of life for people in North Minneapolis.
A Minneapolis Mural Arts program could help further this process and create the kind of good news we need these days: news that says our kids are achieving and our artists are both beautifying our communities and helping them represent themselves with pride. And this beautiful. representative, and relevant art would belong to all of us.
Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl is a muralist, a K-12 teacher, and an adjunct professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She lives in North Minneapolis.
Photos, top to bottom:
Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl, in front of one of her own murals, designed by Betsy Cole, on Minneapolis' Jungle Theater.
A mural next to Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis
A detail of the Jungle mural
"Canvas" for a possible mural on the Northside's Glenwood Avenue
All photos by Bill Kelley