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The meaning of murals: Public art brings impact to big cities and small towns

Posted at 9:17 AM, Jan 14, 2022

PHILADELPHIA — We are told big cities and tiny towns share little. But the threads that are common can often surprise, like the impact in both of art on a wall.

“Today, we have a waiting list that's like thousands of people waiting to have art," said Jane Golden, the head of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

One of America’s oldest cities was one of the first to see a true movement for murals on its streets. Now, to drive through Philadelphia is to be rewarded with a 12-mile quilt of culture.

“We tend to rely on traditional ways of solving things," Golden said, "even though our traditional interventions can fail us. And so, I think our ability to hold on to creativity and innovation is really critical. Like, we have to think out of the box.”

Other cities have run the baton of public art toward real impact. In Indianapolis, a cultural trail featuring heavy investment in art, has boosted surrounding property values by a billion dollars. In Cincinnati, an illuminated art installation has improved safety on a popular walking trail. A Los Angeles arts agency found that putting murals on one boulevard raised business revenue by 5-10%. Back in Philly, Mural Arts runs programs for those newly returned from jail to emerge through art.

But what do murals mean to towns of a few hundred?

Kristin Luna launched a nonprofit with her husband called Do More Art. They commission murals in largely rural and low-population areas in their state of Tennessee.

“I think it’s an access to art that a lot of communities don’t have," Luna said. "To be able to drive by and see something like that every single and not have to go into an art gallery or museum is a pretty cool thing for a town of that size to have.”

Some communities have gone all-in. Chillicothe, Missouri boasts more than two dozen murals across town. Lake Placid, Florida has nearly four dozen. Home values might not skyrocket, but Main Street businesses get a boost.

"People go down there to take a picture in front of the mural and they don't realize, 'Hey, there's an antique shop right next to it,'" Luna said. "Then you kind of get this snowball effect.”

Turns out, it's all about pride. And pride is the undeniable thread that connects murals with communities, no matter their size.