More Than a Pretty Picture

by Brett Steeves

Forward-thinking cities, towns, and villages of the Finger Lakes are showing their support for the arts with public murals and mural trails. These vibrant and often historic displays are not only Instagram-worthy backdrops that attract visitors; they are also a platform for local talent and make art accessible to everyone.

Still, there are myths and misconceptions about murals and their potentially negative impact on a community. Here, I’d like to highlight how murals serve a community, not bring it down. I begin with the story of a portrait mural I created on the side of a grocery store in Hammondsport, of local hero Glenn Curtiss.

The outpouring of enthusiasm I experienced painting on site took me by surprise. People parked their cars and walked up to thank me for painting a piece of their history. It helped me realize what a mural can mean to a community.

Public murals are good for local businesses. People who travel to see them don’t just snap a photo and head home. Instead, they try out local restaurants, visit museums, stay in a nearby hotel, and experience all that the town has to offer. In the end, public murals create a positive economic impact and contribute a great deal to local arts and culture initiatives.

A national study in 2015 revealed that local attendees of nonprofit arts events spent a daily average of $23.44 per person/per event, beyond any cost of admission, according to Americans for the Arts. They purchased such things as gas and meals, and paid for parking and babysitters – all valuable revenue for local commerce and the community.  In addition, 39 percent of the people who turned out for an art event were not local.  On average, these nonlocals spent $47.57 per day; twice the amount spent by local audiences. In 2015 alone, art event attendees nationwide spent well over $100 billion. 

The most successful public murals belong to the community, not the artist, and they need to be created in careful collaboration with the community. Some artists misunderstand the nature of public murals and attempt to use the space to make personal statements. The result might be well done, colorful, and fun to look at, but the community will rarely embrace the mural as its own.

Another very important factor in the success of a public mural is the level of skill and technique an artist is able to lend to the project. Community based murals demand an experienced skillset. The artist must have a true understanding of the surface, its preparation, the paints and how to apply them, and, finally how to protect the completed project.

Public murals are rarely funded by the building owners who offer their walls to the community as a canvas.  Instead, many public murals are paid for through crowd-funding, sponsors, grants, or the generosity of local businesses and/or individuals. 

A quick internet search for “mural trails” reveals a seemingly endless list of success stories ranging from the canal-based mural trail in Lyons to more extensive trails in large cities; Philadelphia for example. Often, their success can be attributed to the hard work and collaborative efforts of a mural society or local chamber of commerce.  Each year, more and more tourists plan their travel itineraries around visi rals across a region or across the country.

It doesn’t take much effort to find an old tired wall in a forgotten neighborhood or alleyway. A mural can breathe new life into it and serve as a catalyst for vitality and pride that spreads through the community like a wildfire. A natural kinship is borne wherever a proper public mural appears. And when that happens, a mural can be called a success.

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