Painting the Town Prosperous

Urban artists revive our neighborhoods and show us how to share our gifts.


Artists have always been creative about finding ways to get by, and new research shows that their survival strategies actually make a community more stable and self-sufficient.

For example, a report by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has found that poor Philadelphia neighborhoods with a large number of working artists have lower rates of child truancy and delinquency, as well as higher social cohesion. These neighborhoods are also more likely to revitalize economically and culturally, and their residents are more willing to pitch in during community activities. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions about neighborhoods in Chicago and Silicon Valley.

Of course, the arts have always made an economic contribution by creating jobs and circulating money. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts sector generated $166.2 billion in economic activity in 2005 and supported 5.7 million full-time jobs, both in the arts and the industries that support them. But the value of the arts goes beyond the formal economy. Artists—always in need of collaborators, resources, and audiences—are often master negotiators, and the friendships, alliances, and other types of social relationships they create help strengthen their communities.
That’s one reason why artists manage to survive even in tough times, and why a vibrant arts scene is one key to rebuilding a thriving local economy.

The Dreams of Many Painters

Philadelphia Mural photo by Alejandro Alvarez

Painter James Burns has worked with Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program for nine years. He has been amazed by how powerful the murals have been for community residents. By the time this mural, "Personal Renaissance," was finished, 1,500 people had worked on it.

Photo by Alejandro Alvarez.

In Philadelphia, you don’t need to step inside a museum or gallery to understand the impact artists have had. Almost anywhere you look, from the city’s poorest neighborhoods to its interational airport, you’ll find one of the 3,000 vivid murals created by the Mural Arts Progam (MAP). Described by Mayor Michael Nutter as “the best mural arts program anywhere in the world,” MAP’s murals present images from the dreams and everyday lives of Philadelphians on a grand scale.

James Burns has worked with MAP for nine years as a painter and artist. He has been amazed by how powerful the murals have been for community residents, thousands of whom have been involved in their design and creation.

In 2010, for example, Burns collaborated with the patients of a methadone clinic to create a mural called “Personal Renaissance,” about recovery from addiction. Burns involved the patients at every stage of the process. The design was based on raps and poems they created during sessions with spoken word artist Ursula Rucker.

In the early stages of the project, some of the patients were enthusiastic and others indifferent. “I don’t think people realized the scale of the project we were working on,” Burns says. “Once it became evident, the attitude changed. I saw people grow by leaps and bounds during the time I was there.”

Artists bring money to their neighborhoods, knit the community together, and increase its capacity to overcome economic challenges.

Burns worked hard to get the whole community involved: 1,500 people had worked on the mural by the time it was finished. The process was transformative. “To see somebody who’s been off the street for a year feeling a lot better about themselves in terms of where they’re at in life,” Burns explains, “I couldn’t have anticipated that.”

The mural that emerged from those sessions covers one entire side of the clinic building. The cloud-filled sky painted in the upper half of the mural blends with the real skyline behind it, so that the addicts pulling each other out of the gloom and darkness in the mural’s lower half seem truly present on the street.

The mural wasn’t just a source of inspiration—it also created jobs. The project employed clinic patients on a short-term basis as painters, and the most motivated were hired for longer engagements, then rehired when MAP started work on a much larger mural, “How Philly Moves,” now installed at the city’s airport.

Burns describes this kind of employment as a “waystation,” because the Mural Arts Program looks after its workers—who may be prisoners, addicts, or youth who have spent time in juvenile detention—in a way a regular employer might not. Later on, the program helps them find long-term work.

The Economy of Abundance

OurGoods photo courtesy of OurGoods

During events organized by the network OurGoos, based in New York City, artists learn tips for successful bartering and identify what they need and what they can share.

Photo courtesy of OurGoods.

In a tough economy, the community-centric nature of the arts allows artists to survive and contribute to creative local enterprise. But some of that contribution happens outside traditional measures of cash flow and job growth.

In New York City, for instance, the unemployment rate among artists in 2009 was 9.5 percent—a full point higher than the city’s average. Caroline Woolard, a Brooklyn-based artist, has some ideas about why that is. “Most artists get into this kind of work not thinking about money or even supply and demand,” she says. Instead, they run on what she calls an “economy of abundance,” fueled by their own “unlimited desire to continue producing.”

“I think there is an audience for every work,” Woolard says, “but you need networks of creative people to help them find each other.”

That realization led her, along with four other young artists, to found, a website that facilitates bartering among creative people. The site offers crafts and services such as singing lessons, writing classes, and hand-tailored dresses, as well as paintings,
sculptures, and other artwork.

Louise Ma, another OurGoods co-founder, is currently trading web design for fresh produce grown by young farmers just a few miles up the Hudson River. In the past, she’s translated
interviews, designed flyers, and sketched portraits, usually in exchange for groceries or cooking. Yet she values the network of generous and creative people she’s met and collaborated with even more than the great meals.

OurGoods currently has nearly 400 members scattered in locations around the world; most live in New York.

The Art of Resilience

Some people believe that artists’ successes come with a cost: Artsy neighborhoods might become more expensive and suffer gentrification. But research findings in Philadelphia suggest that’s not true. Artists actually increase the stability of a neighborhood’s

mural arts
Video: Philadelphians
Paint the Town

How art healed and united troubled communities in the
City of Brotherly Love.

“There is a synergy among artists, local arts organizations, and creative communities where each fosters and sustains the other,” says arts scholar Bill Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. Artists bring money to their neighborhoods,
knit the community together, and increase its capacity to overcome economic challenges.

Artists do this by finding alternative ways to exchange value for materials and spaces they need but often can’t afford. Their contributions range from the lofty and complex—such as helping a neighborhood visualize and find meaning in its history—to simple, tangible products and innovations.

Each of these alternative forms of exchange involves resources artists create and control themselves, not funds that can be cut off by a bank or credit agency. That means local arts have the potential to be surprisingly resilient. And artists’ unique combination of innovation, inspiration, and practicality may be just what communities need to weather the economic, ecological, and political uncertainties that lie ahead.


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