Contrasting three popular mural projects in Baltimore

tside the Jubilee Arts center on Aug. 1, a sizable crowd celebrates the completion of Art @ Work: Sandtown, a monthlong program offering employment to 80 people between the ages of 14 and 21 through the city program YouthWorks. The participants partnered with eight local, professional artists to paint murals and a mosaic project throughout Sandtown-Winchester. The artists showcase and celebrate their work with a cookout and a running trolley tour of the area, a mini-parade with dancers, a drum line, and stilt walkers. The murals have only been completed for 24 hours, Nora Howell, the program director of Jubilee Arts and a co-organizer of the project, tells me, but she can already see a drastic change from the blank walls of last month to the painted ones today.

"I think everyone deserves to live in a beautiful place," she says. The excitement surrounding the celebration suggests that everyone here agrees.

But is it enough to make a place beautiful? A Washington Post article by Frances Stead Sellers published in June asks whether art can "save" Baltimore in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots, but you'll find no mention of art's impact on Sandtown-Winchester in her article. Instead, Sellers focuses on the success of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. One huge issue with asking whether "the arts" can save Baltimore is that the national media are only willing to look at Station North, a relatively new and rapidly gentrifying area, for the positive impact that art can have on a community.

To be clear, Station North is not a neighborhood, but a collection of pre-existing neighborhoods that have been lumped together by a tax break (because it is a designated arts district, artists who live and work in the area can receive a variety of tax incentives), which has helped to increase the number of artists who occupy its neighborhoods. A small bit of Barclay and all of Charles North and Greenmount West are included within its boundaries.

Station North's arts district designation was a major factor in fueling this area's revitalization, and, consequently, its gentrification. Though by the early 2010s most of the impoverished areas were revitalized, especially those in Charles North, even post-arts district designation Greenmount West was still struggling with drugs and gang violence. In November 2013, 48 members of the Black Guerilla Family gang were charged for operating in the area. Since those arrests the area has been much less violent, but not completely so. In June someone was shot on the 1800 block of Barclay Street, the same block on which a large multicolored mural announcing "Greenmount West" has existed since 2010.

This mural is one of many in the area. Open Walls Baltimore started putting up murals back in 2012, with its most recent round of murals completed in 2014. Curated by the local artist Gaia, Open Walls brought artists from all over the world to paint the community's walls, with a current count of 26 high-quality, professional murals throughout a nine-block-wide area of Station North.

The artists in Open Walls tried to reflect an aspect of the neighborhood in their murals, and quite a few are portraits of community members. And though the murals honor and respect the pre-existing community of Greenmount West, OWB's reliance on outside artists by nature cannot have the same effect on the community that Art @ Work has. Although master artists who did not necessarily live in Sandtown were recruited to act as mentors to the amateur artists for Art @ Work, the content of the murals was largely shaped by the young people. Howell says that she did not necessarily look for kids who were interested in art to participate in the project; in order to work they simply had to go through an interview process, live in the 21217 ZIP code and be between the ages of 14 and 21. But she hopes this project has sparked their interest in art. She beams when she tells me that one of the kids told her that he loves going home smelling like paint. Rather than bringing in artists from outside the city, Art @ Work aims to create and develop artists out of members of the community.

Whether it's through professional artists or groups of young people, why does it matter how the art gets into a community? It seems overwhelmingly positive that Station North could use art to pull itself up and advertise itself. But the national media's reaction to Open Walls made it sound as though this was the first time a mural had been painted in Baltimore. The majority of murals that color the city's walls predate the establishment of the hallowed Station North arts district. Originally called Beautiful Walls for Baltimore, the Baltimore Mural Project (BMP), a subset of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), has been setting up murals in different communities all over the city since the 1970s, with more than 250 murals to date. All of the murals from the BMP that still remain in Station North are clustered in Greenmount West, making it the only place in the city where Open Walls and BMP exist side by side.

After the first round of murals in 2012, the New York Times advertised that the Open Walls project was "animating the neighborhood's ramshackle elegance." The Washington Post, a few months later, published an article that called Station North "an 'it' neighborhood." But couldn't "ramshackle elegance" apply loosely as a descriptor for almost any neighborhood in Baltimore? Why haven't any of the murals from the BMP tagged the neighborhoods they were installed in as "it" neighborhoods, or tagged Baltimore as an "it" city? Focusing on an area because of art and then later looking to that same area for how the city can be "saved" undermines the true power that art can have when it is born out of a community.

Murals have been thought of as agents of recovery and empowerment for Baltimore communities for ages. That notion is essentially built into the way the Baltimore Mural Project executes its murals. By keeping a registry of prequalified artists, art can easily be commissioned by communities and other organizations. Once commissioned, the artist generally meets with community leaders and conducts street interviews in order to gauge the character of a community, and all proposed mural plans go through the same community leaders, residents, and property owners prior to putting up the mural. The connection between the art and the community that hosts it, then, is strengthened and drawn out. Maggie Villegas, the Public Art Project Specialist for BOPA and co-organizer of Art @ Work, says that this can have a profound impact. "Beyond beautifying neighborhoods," she says, "murals created with a high level of community involvement instill a sense of pride and bring people together. They spark conversations and often act as a platform for amplifying and honoring community voices."

During the Art @ Work celebration, trolley tours go through Sandtown, stopping at each mural and giving the artist apprentices who worked on them the chance to speak about their work. At the Mount Street Bridge, one of the artists explains that the colorful symbols that they painted are African symbols for words like patience, courage, peace, strength, and God. He says when they interviewed the community, the residents said that they wanted something bright, something positive, something different from what's been focused on with Freddie Gray. On Kavanaugh Street the artists painted an African-American woman holding a world with a plant growing out of it, and one of the artists tells us that it's because black women are the healers of the community. On Lorens Street, a phoenix rises out of the projects. On Gilmor Street, black leaders such as Obama and Harriet Tubman cover three sides of a bath house outside of the William McAbee pool. There's a wide mix of people on the trolley, from relatives of the artists to community members to curious outsiders with cameras, and at each stop everyone attentively listens to the background story of the mural and applauds afterward. The relatives coo at the murals their son or granddaughter made. The youth workers at the front speak exuberantly, proud of the work they've done. The empowerment and recovery symbolized by the murals is immediately apparent in the wide-eyed reactions of the tour group and the celebration at the cookout.

The reaction from media outlets outside of Baltimore toward Art @ Work remains to be seen, as well as, more importantly, the actual effects of this project on Sandtown and the young people who produced the murals. And rumors of infighting among artists and organizers outside of this project also counter the bubble of positivity surrounding it. With that in mind, Art @ Work is another voice in a continuing dialogue throughout this city about how art interacts with communities, and how murals play into that interaction. It seems to combine the most effective aspects of both the large-scale Open Walls project and the community-motivated efforts of BMP murals. It's questionable whether art can "save" Baltimore—a mural can't heal a gunshot wound or fix a broken spine, after all—but projects such as Art @ Work: Sandtown could be stepping stones, showing that they can inspire the empowerment, development, and pride that will lead to healing.

For more information on Art @ Work visit promotionandarts.org.

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