Word on the Street
Today’s blog post is written by Alex Pagano, Documentation Manager, PatronManager.
Growing up near Richmond, VA, I had no idea that my little hometown would grow up to become known as “home of the world’s best street art.” At the time, the graffiti scene in Richmond was active, but underground, earning more ire than awe from the populace. Even the city’s most famous and beloved muralist frequently found his commissioned work the ire of Richmond’s zoning board. The city’s artistic energy was bubbling, palpable, edgy — just not yet tangible.
Fast-forward to when I came back from college; things had changed. Suddenly, those same graffiti “bombers” were getting commissioned to create beautiful, permanent art — and the city loved it. So, what happened?
Two things: Shane Pomajambo, owner of Art Whino art gallery in Washington, D.C., made a trip down to Richmond to start the Richmond Mural Project in 2012. Though he originally planned to hold an “Art of the Mural” large-scale exhibition in D.C., after talking with a couple community leaders in Richmond, they found a different opportunity; he and the business owners of Richmond could mutually help each other. Shane could use their empty wall spaces to hold a new street art festival, and the business owners would get a much-needed boost in foot traffic.
Meanwhile, that famous-and-loved muralist Ed Trask took commissions from bigger and bigger clients with ready approval from the government he once butt heads with. He worked with city council members to organize their own annual festival, RVA Street Art Festival, to celebrate and showcase local artists in big ways — larger than life ways, public ways.
Now, Richmond’s street art is a major part of its tourism packaging, and it drives enough interest to continue to hold the annual festival mentioned above. Home to over 100 murals by artists from all over the world, it’s a legitimate mural-lovers destination.
So why am I telling you this story?
First, because I think there’s something really cool in the story itself; in summary, a few interested parties in Richmond helped bring vested interest of public art installations to an initially resistant city, largely through cooperation with local business owners and repetition.
Second, because there are some pretty strong correlations between public art and public support of art. A rising, abstract painting of the tide lifts all boats, so to speak.
Public art engages those who wouldn’t normally be able to enjoy it, and it helps to instill the youth of the city with a love for it — that’s been true for years, no surprise there. There’s more, though — cities with vibrant street art scenes tend to have more robust arts scenes in all disciplines.
Referencing Richmond for example, at the end of 2015, a travel website ranked Richmond as the #1 mid-sized arts city in the country. A lot of things went into that ranking, none of them public art displays. Instead, their algorithm counted art supplies stores, art classes, museums, and performing arts centers. So again, the question is: why?
I posit that public perception of the city and of the arts had been changing since 2011. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had just undergone a huge renovation. The Dean of the VCU School of the Arts observed alumni moving back to or staying in the community, and the students of that school began to collaborate with city leaders through a program launched four years prior… right around the time public murals started splashing onto the scene.
Now, I’m not saying street art installations cause a greater interest in art overall — that’s far too bold a claim for this blog post. But I am saying that a city’s embrace of street art might just indicate that its denizens are ready to make art a bigger part of their lives. As one mural enthusiast from Richmond opines, “People who may not think they are creative… can see creativity happening in front of their eyes.”
So what does all this mean for your arts organization?
Your audience is out there waiting for you.
Maybe they’re not where you expect them to be, and maybe you have to bring the art to them. If street art draws the adoration of a town, why not the work of your organization? Maybe you’re just one pop-up gallery, one “teaser” act of a play in a public park, one “Schubert in the Streets” performance away from tapping into a whole new generation of patrons.