Philadelphia public spaces are canvas for Open Source art exhibit

Open Source, a citywide public art exhibition under way in Philadelphia right now, features 22 works by 14 artists, all in public spaces throughout the city. It’s one of those things that can only happen in Philly.


The murals, sculptures, and installations are by artists local and far-flung, all responding to this city.

A New Orleans-based street artist known as MOMO worked with local students to create a mural based on geometry concepts.

Artist Jennie Shanker, a professor at Temple University, created a project memorializing a community in Norris Apartments, a public housing complex near Temple facing demolition. She painted murals of its facades on nearby SEPTA retaining walls, and is building a website of oral histories by the housing project’s residents.

Internationally recognized street artists Shepard Fairey and Swoon (Caledonia Curry) each are creating work based on inmates at Graterford prison, a maximum-security facility about 30 miles north of Philadelphia.

When planning Open Source, curator Pedro Alonzo advised the Mural Arts Program to play to its strengths. The public art program has 30 years of collaborations under its belt, with longstanding relationships inside neighborhoods, schools, prisons, and city agencies. Out-of-town artists were able to parachute in and immediately gain access to subjects they could never get anywhere else.

“Inmates, for instance, at Graterford prison,” said Alonzo. “That’s not something a museum can provide. Without 10 years of work there with inmates, there’s no trust. So we were able to give artists access to those relationships to make compelling works of art.”

Artist Sam Durant, based in Los Angeles, visited inmates at Graterford several times over a year to collectively conceive of work that would ultimately be installed in JFK Plaza, directly outside Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building.

He said it’s something he would never have been able to do in L.A.

“I came with no preconceived ideas, just telling them we have a site in the middle of Philadelphia,” said Durant. “‘What do you want to say about mass incarceration?’ One guy said, ‘When you get into the criminal justice system, it’s like going into a maze you can never get out of.'”

Durant created a 50-by-50-foot chainlink labyrinth, a twisting cage 8 feet high, through which the public can walk. Over time the links will be adorned with messages from prisoners and the public. All are invited to hang messages on the maze of fencing.

Maps and information on the pieces in Open Source are available in the lobby of the Graham Building, on 15th Street across from City Hall.

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