Philadelphia’s murals need a makeover

    It’s a big job maintaing 3,000 murals

    Philadelphia’s three thousand public murals are part of the city’s identity – but they’ve become a maintenance headache. The Mural Arts Program has spent more energy making new work than keeping up the old. It recently began redouble its efforts to monitor and repair murals
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    The Mural Arts Program has been at it for over 25 years. Some murals age better than others.

    “This is in bad shape. Water has degraded it.”

    That is Seth Turner. Part of his job with the Mural Arts Program is to cruise around neighborhoods to see what murals could use some touch-ups. But the stucco on this wall at 36th and Fairmount is crumbling off the building, taking the mural with it.

    “If I were to bang on this it’s hollow. There’s a hollow spot here. You don’t want to throw paint on this because it’s going to fail.”

    Seth Turner
    Seth Turner

    Turner has a tape measure and a laptop. He logs notes and measurements of every mural he sees into a computer database the Mural Arts Program has recently installed. It tracks the condition of the 3,000 piece collection.

    Before the tracking system, repainting or structural repairs were done whenever somebody happened to notice, but often nobody would.

    “They are not in a gallery. They are not in a climate-controlled environment with guards saying, ‘don’t touch.’ They live outdoors. Birds poop on the murals, the sun damages the murals, water, smog, soot, the whole shebang.”
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    Two other public art offices in the city do not paint murals. Both the Redevelopment Authority and the Office of Arts and Culture have 1% programs. As in, 1% of the cost of new development on city-owned land goes to public art. The administrators of those programs avoid murals because, for one, they need constant maintenance, and also paint on walls just isn’t ambitious enough for them. Murals are fickle.

    “Over time the neighborhood changes. The community may not be fond of it anymore.”

    Murals are not without their critics. Last fall the urban planning group Penn Praxis issued a report which said the Mural Arts Program is not coordinated with any city-wide public art plan nor any urban renewal plan. That it is flying unchecked. The program creates as many as 150 new murals a year; that’s one almost every other day. When director Jane Golden started 25 years ago it was all about putting paint on walls.

    “It was essentially me and 100 kids and we had so much enthusiasm. Every day was spent on scaffolding, or talking about the mural. And it was great. But the art wasn’t great.”

    A case in point is a mural at 40th and Parkside. It was painted in late 80’s and features re-created family photographs from African-American residents in the neighborhood. It’s called Black Family Reunion. It’s not the most dynamic image, and after 15 years it was getting long in the tooth. The Mural Arts Program sent word to the neighbors that they were considering replacing it with a mural about Alex’s Lemonade Stand – the cancer charity.

    “They said no. Definitely no.”

    Alice White is the block captain of that neighborhood.

    “The family reunion represents our history. The Lemonade Stand meant nothing.”

    The director of the Partnership Community Development Corporation in West Philadelphia, Stephen Williams, goes past it a few times a week.

    “Every time I go past – been past a million times – I still stop and stare. Makes you think of different things about your own family.”

    After a community meeting, the Mural Arts Program relented. The mural still stands, restored.
    Dr J
    Next year the Program will launch an African-American package – a series of podcasts and maps highlighting murals with a common theme, like Black Family Reunion in Parkside and Dr. J in North Philadelphia. Seth Turner says the mission of the Mural Arts Program is to make empty walls look good.

    “After 25 years of getting good at that – now we’re going to have to get used to maintaining these walls.”

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