What Happened to Impact? Navigating Aesthetics & Social Responsibility in the Public Art World
From 2012 to 2014, I immersed myself in one of America’s fastest growing arts communities: Wynwood, Miami. Auto repair shops were decked with neon colors. Restaurants bore marks of artistic appreciation on their walls. Murals stood freshly painted by champions in the art world.
The neighborhood’s style dug into my instinctual love for gritty artistic streets. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt something brewing in Wynwood. Swaths of publicity, investment and hype became the norm—producing a fascinating case study for how art, development and social responsibility are interdependent and sometimes at odds.
Miamians are now privileged to have an entire neighborhood dedicated to freely accessible and internationally renowned wall-art. However, each day that I walked through Wynwood it was obvious that something crucial was left out of the equation during development: locals.
For example, in 2013—four years after the formation of Wynwood’s Art District Association and three years after the opening of Wynwood Walls—I walked into the nearest school: Jose de Diego Middle School. With whitewashed walls and bars reminiscent of a jail cell, the school was devoid of fine art programs and art teachers. Despite all the artistic fervor across the street, the school was underperforming academically, ridden with extremely high suspension rates and lacking opportunities for hands-on involvement in the arts. With creativity flourishing next door and an influx of money dedicated to the neighborhood’s business development, the resources were abundant and ready to benefit the local population. Yet the school’s walls towered like a border, dividing local residents from all the development that made Wynwood thrive. Visiting Jose de Diego, I saw exactly how isolated locals were from the neighborhood’s growth.
Today, however, if you visit Jose de Diego Middle School, you’ll see walls covered with elaborate murals. In 2014, a coalition of Wynwood-based organizations—including my previous organization, U-Doodle— invited a frenzy of mural artists to turn the school into an outdoor gallery. For many reasons this mural project was a national success story, just like Wynwood has been. Though, at least for me, the project’s aesthetic impact was again far more about cosmetic changes than it was about benefiting those most closely affected.
Even though the school’s walls looked vibrant, the students were not included in the mural project in any significant way. They were mere spectators to the act of creativity, rather than participants in the creative process. In some cases, being a pure spectator to excellent art is acceptable, like when I buy tickets to enjoy a performance of “Swan Lake” with little-to-no interest in being involved aside from as a patron. However, expectations are different when art is applied publicly, and thus defines the look and feel of an entire area for multiple generations of viewers.
As it was, project organizers selected and flew in top artists from around the world to paint murals in the school. When the mural was completed, artists took the next flight out of town. Students were barely included (if at all) in the mural project’s creative process. They watched between classes as artists arrived, painted and left—a sight nonetheless interesting for anyone to see. Any student, and likely passers-by, would exclaim how inspiring the murals look when asked. Yet, these comments often misled us to view the project as a total success. Realistically, such comments only reflect a success external to those affected, rather than internal. In other words, the public does not take personal, or internal, responsibility for the maintenance or continuation of the murals— or of the entire school for that matter. Instead they will likely wait until someone else comes to fix or improve the art. Moreover, what about the students who will attend the school four years later with zero connection to the murals that engulf them?
Students will spend more than 1,000 hours in school each year, no doubt affected by the artwork as anybody would be affected by 1,000 hours in a single museum. The main difference here is that we do not mandate every young person to spend that many hours per year in a museum. So, does this not raise the question: what responsibility do we, as artists and arts leaders, have when producing public art that will be seen by hundreds without choice? Similarly, what responsibility do educators, business leaders, or politicians have when crafting their respective curricula, business models, or policies—soon to be enforced upon an unsuspecting public?
Aside from the wow-factor for students and visitors at Jose de Diego, teachers did not adjust the way they teach nor did students learn any more relevant or thought-provoking material. As far as I saw, students were not encouraged to produce art themselves or even get involved in the massive development efforts taking place next door. In fact, even the school’s newly established after-school art program at the time (created and implemented by my organization) were silenced.
My team arrived one morning to find the students’ mural sketches painted blank without any prior notice by administrators. Administrators decided independently that the students’ artwork was not good enough to hang alongside the newly installed murals, just as others decided to paint the murals in the first place. Rather than be angry, though, we must ask: if beautiful murals are what developers or administrators want, how can we as artists and leaders provide excellent art with equally high regard for social impact?
The school was given a gift: great artwork pre-selected by a self-appointed group of (mostly non-local) leaders from Wynwood. This gift would be akin to your rich brother giving you an empty box, wrapped in gold paper for your birthday. It looks exciting, and might make you drool while you’re opening the gift, but pretty soon you’ll realize that it’s just the shiny paper that made you jump. Similarly, painting a school or even re-developing an entire neighborhood looks aesthetically awesome. Sooner or later, though, someone needs to uncover the impact that such changes truly have on local residents who are most closely affected.
Did a series of well-done murals—painted by artists from out of town with little to no personal understanding of the school—fully empower the local students to be capable, responsible and active citizens? In other words, did this good-intentioned mural painting project do enough?