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While confronting the impacts of COVID-19, don’t forget that the arts can be part of the solution

May 4, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose

Editor’s note: We reached out to a number of nonprofits that will be affected if Mayor Jim Kenney‘s recently released revised budget and five-year plan is approved. A few of those we reached out to didn’t respond; others deferred comment until an unspecified later date. Jane Golden, the founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, was one of the those who returned a comment. We found her response so engaging we asked her to elaborate and turn it into a guest column.

During this stay at home time, Mural Arts immediately pivoted our work, creating a number of initiatives to employ artists, marry beauty and public health messaging, engage our students and restorative justice program participants, and continue to advance an agenda of art connected to important civic issues.

Space Pads Project. (Courtesy)

Budget cuts are hard; we know this is a difficult time for everyone. As part of city government, we’re all facing cutbacks. But at this point, we feel we need to be team players. The truth is, we care deeply about the city and we empathize with the mayor’s difficult decisions. We will keep our eye on our mission, and do our work with passion and integrity on behalf of the citizens of Philadelphia.

I believe it is important that as an organization which is part of the fabric of the city, while being mindful of the current crisis, Mural Arts has to be inventive and creative and figure out how we can continue to see our work through the lens of equity and creativity; that we try hard every day to generate a feeling of hopefulness in spite of despair.

The WPA came out of the ashes of the depression. What an extraordinary movement this was: work created by writers, artists, musicians, actors, and other cultural figures had as profound and lasting of an impact on the nation as the parks and bridges and roads that were built at the same time. During the period of the greatest sustained unemployment in this nation’s past, the government stepped in to provide paid work that resulted in much of the rich cultural heritage that we enjoy to this day. How wonderful that back then our society was able to treat cultural workers with the same respect as others.

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It is incumbent on all of us to think about opportunities that come out of a crisis and mine that as much as possible. I suggest Congress should pass a stimulus package that creates jobs like the WPA, but one where equity and access are front and center.

Put artists to work across the country — teaching, healing, inspiring.

Everyone at Mural Arts wants to think about ways we can collaborate with city departments and colleagues at social service agencies, schools, non-profits, and those working in the criminal justice system. What if we partnered artists and humanity scholars to partner with scientists and healthcare practitioners? What if we asked writers and artists to help the public understand where our collective cultural future is going to be and help us — as a city — have a say in its design? The time is now to tap into what our city and country have to offer culturally and civically, to pool our resources, and to challenge ourselves to work together on behalf of the greater good.

The WPA employed 12,700 actors, playwrights, theater professionals, painters, and writers. Artists like Zora Neale Hurston, painters like Phillip Guston, a young Orson Wells, playwright Arthur Miller, and photographer Gordon Parks. These artists changed the cultural landscape of America and this can happen again.

And just as importantly, hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. were introduced or gained further appreciation for music, theater, literature, and history through WPA programs, infinitely enriching their lives. Access matters.

Our elected officials and business leaders should be drawing on what could be the most potent resources available for this moment: knowledge, creativity, imagination, and analytical abilities of artists across this country.

Space Pads Project. (Courtesy)

Cities are struggling. Both before this pandemic, and they will after as well. An opioid crisis, a huge gap between those who have and those who do not, struggles with people facing housing insecurity, trauma, public safety issues — these are many of our serious long-standing issues.

Artists are magicians at coming up with innovative solutions, discovering a path uncharted, and helping us see beyond traditional ways of thinking.

Here in Philadelphia we see this all the time. A profound example is the Mural Arts Philadelphia Porch Light Program (a partnership with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services) where we take empty spaces and transform them with artists at the center.

At these hub spaces, artists work in partnership with ESL specialists, civic teachers, nurses, clinicians, peer specialists, therapists, and more to deliver programming that reaches the whole person — their creative being and far beyond. Through the work of the artists, spaces once bleak and depressing come alive with color, with beauty, and with hope. The programs offered throughout the city touch people in deep ways and inspire individuals to see their own potential.

So, I say put artists to work across the country — teaching, healing, inspiring.

Assign them to schools, recreation centers, court rooms, prisons, libraries, and hospitals. Have them work in city departments and ask them to help us envision a new day. How many artists are currently unemployed? How many are eager, willing, anxious to make a difference, give back, and make the world a better place?

The coronavirus has set us back physically, spiritually, and economically, but that does not mean we should give up. We have spaces that need to be transformed and people who need to be supported. At Mural Arts, in our reentry program, our programs for young people, through our work with the behavioral health system, we see changes every day around the profound impact of art.

Art can lift our spirit and soul, and it can remind us that, together, we can make something meaningful for ourselves and for the community as a whole. Even in dark times, art can foreshadow true democracy. It helps make our world more human.

Rebecca Solnit says, “Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.”

This is something that many of us are preparing to do. Why not have the arts be part of the solution?


Porch Light Program

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