Nov. 1, 2021 3:09 pm

Sustainability and public art: A closer connection than you’d think

Global Philadelphia's vision is to create 17 outdoor artworks to illustrate each of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals — with the help of corporate sponsors, says guest columnist Robert McNeill.

Mural by Isabella Akhtarshenas at Samuel Gompers Elementary School.


This guest column was written by Rob McNeill, Deloitte's managing partner for  Greater Philadelphia, and chairman of Global Philadelphia Association.
This fall, students returning to Samuel Gompers Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Wynnefield section were welcomed by something new: A colorful 10-foot by 10-foot public art project representing the fluidity among math, science, art, technology and other disciplines.

Students, who provided input for the public art, also saw references to their school, for instance its tiger mascot. “I wanted to create something exciting and joyful, as this will be the first thing students see upon walking into their school,” says artist Isabella Akhtarshenas, who lives and works in Philadelphia.

While students undoubtedly are enjoying the public art, it’s not just for them. As public art, the piece’s message on the importance of education is meant for all.

“My hope is for people to really examine the public art and all of its components,” says Akhtarshenas, who left her piece untitled as another way to spark viewers’ imaginations. “I want them to understand that quality education goes far beyond the standard subjects that we learn in school. Education is a human right, and I want that to be realized when people see the diversity of humans and disciplines in the public art.”

Akhtarshenas’ public art is part of a series of art displays being developed under Global Philadelphia Association’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Public Art Project.  The vision is to create 17 outdoor artworks throughout the region with the help of corporate sponsors. Another new work focused on SDG Goal 1 “No Poverty” was unveiled earlier this month.

Each artwork will illustrate one of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals addressing such issues as poverty, peace and justice, education and climate and environmental degradation.

This initiative is already being well received by the public. And I am confident that Philadelphia’s businesses, organizations and individuals will come together in a meaningful way. The project provides a direct pathway for public and private businesses to demonstrate their commitment to equity and sustainability.

We all know how the past 18 months have only accelerated the need for organizations to be active contributors to a more equitable and sustainable society. Investors, customers and employees are making decisions based on how companies respond.

Local businesses, organizations and individuals can translate their commitments into visible action by supporting one or more of the remaining art opportunities under the SDG Art Project. Three of the 17 works have been completed, five are in progress and nine are concepts.

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With even more support, we can move all 17 to the finished side of the ledger and create a dynamic outdoor gallery that is a must-do tour for visitors and residents alike.

More broadly, it will tell the world that Greater Philadelphia is activating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It’s amazing to think what some neighborhood public art could do to elevate the region’s reputation and credibility on the world stage.

And when an organization decides to sponsor one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, it also provides a grant to a Philadelphia nonprofit whose mission aligns with the specific goal. Samuel Gompers Elementary school, for example, received a $3,000 grant from its sponsor, St. Joseph’s University.

GPA’s mission is to promote preservation and appreciation of our city’s geographical, historical, and cultural heritage; provide a powerful economic and cultural stimulus for the region; and inspire residents to feel pride in our city as the nation’s first World Heritage City.

Which brings us back to Isabella Akhtarshenas’ artwork at Samuel Gompers Elementary.

Following its unveiling in September, other SDG public art installations are being revealed one at a time. As business and community leaders, and interested residents, let’s rally around these openings to garner full support for this larger initiative and get it moving forward with all deliberate speed.

As Akhtarshenas notes, “public art has the power to inspire how people interact with their community, as it can shift people’s subconscious just by being in close proximity with the work.”

I am proud to be part of GPA, an organization that sees and acts on the intersection between business and society, and ask all Philadelphians to join us in creatively bringing these sustainable development goals to life.


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