NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
Valerie Gay is a multi-talented woman. Val is the executive director of Art Sanctuary, and before that, she worked in institutional advancement at Temple University and as a Vice President at PNC. Val is a trained opera singer and still performs in the area, conducts choirs, and runs financial literacy classes (in all her spare time!). She’s making a huge impact on art in Philadelphia, and I couldn’t be happier to have her as a part of this week’s Curate This.
-Jane Golden, Curator
Last week’s curator, Jane Golden, says, “Art ignites change.” When it comes to segregation can art conquer social exclusion and isolation?
Philadelphia is the fourth most segregated city in the nation. Living in Philadelphia this is an un-ignorable fact. We, as Philadelphians, create personal boundaries, restrictions for our living, working, and playing that keeps us from interacting with other groups of people. Whether class or race divides that group, segregation is a present part of Philadelphia. As an unfortunate adage to our city’s standing definitions, we are a city of neighborhoods, but you stay on your side of the neighborhood and I’ll stay on mine. But how do we collectively combat segregation? Beyond personal belief, organizational value, and political siding, how do we exercise integration?
Besides the Eagles and cheesesteaks, there are certain spaces that bridge racial tension and class divide. That which we dub “public” surpasses the proverbial cool kid stoop, and invites all to share the space. In Philadelphia most of our public spaces are neighborhood specific or geared towards tourists. We have our parks and recreation centers that serve a certain community, and monuments that draw outside visitors.
The recently renovated Dilworth Plaza is an excellent example of good public space in Philadelphia, but it is one of a kind. At the heart of Center City, Dilworth Plaza is a comfortable and useful space, and a space that attracts both residents and visitors alike. The plaza maintains its historic reputation, allowing itself to be a place of protest and demonstration, but it also hosts farmers markets and art exhibitions.
Public spaces could be the key to reducing segregation in Philadelphia. Public parks and plazas become spaces of debate and conversation. In his piece, The Sociology of Public Space, Stephane Tonnelat lays down the foundation for an argument that has been accepted both by urban planners and sociologists, stating, “The general opinion is that public spaces are an essential ingredient to the sustainability of cities for political, social, economic, public health and biodiversity reasons. However, the dominating trend observed by many is one of shrinkage rather than expansion of the public realm.” As public spaces become less available, segregation in urban spaces become more prevalent. Tonnelat adds, “according to global indicators of segregation (class, race and ethnicity, gender) seem to show a worldwide growing separateness of the different categories of populations. Today, for a number of planners public space thus appears as an important means to alleviate these ills while at the same time addressing emerging issues such as the imperative of sustainable development and social justice.”
Public spaces often fall victim to condominiums and shopping spaces, however we have been seeing a reestablishing of the public space in Philadelphia. Earlier this year a new design was announced for LOVE Park. The park has always had its architectural challenges. Inga Saffron, architect critic for the Inquirer, wrote in May, “There are many ways that the new design for LOVE Park could have gone wrong. The square at the gateway to the Parkway is an engineering nightmare, perched above a parking garage and a train tunnel. The $15 million budget is barely adequate.”
Saffron, like many Philadelphians, was happy with the news of a redesign that kept the integrity of the park’s vista views intact along with the iconic spaceship building. However, there was backlash from other communities, like Philadelphia’s skate scene. Despite the controversy, the new design brings aesthetic coherence to an otherwise awkward location, and mirrors the intentions of Dilworth Plaza. The park is meant to be a place that encourages spending quality time with friends and family, which the park does not do at the moment.
The area that houses Dilworth Plaza, LOVE Park, and Thomas Paine Plaza could be repurposed and perhaps become the first step in reprioritizing public space in Philadelphia. Currently the area is the most confused and clumsy survey of indecisive Percent for Art Program decisions, and metaphors that have gone terribly awry. Architectural wonders stand side by side next to what I can only assume someone’s whimsical rulings about awkward public art pieces. It’s a shame, but the area has all the potential. If the heart of Center City prioritized public space, it would be making a statement about integration, and hopefully the rest of the city would follow.
When Curate This was just an idea, one of the first people we knew we wanted to collaborate with was Jane Golden. Her mantra, “art ignites change,” has rung true throughout her long history with Mural Arts. Jane Golden is the Founder and Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created more than 3,800 works of public art in the city of Philadelphia. As a strong voice in Philadelphia’s art community, we are honored to have Jane contribute to Curate This.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
The National Institute of Justice states that across the country and within five years of release, 76 percent of former prisoners have been re-incarcerated. It’s called the recidivism rate, and it’s awful.
Coming out of prison and re-entering society is an immense challenge. Weaving back into the threads of a daily life, a life that has been interrupted for months or even years, is difficult, complex, ongoing work. It’s work that cries out for help with navigation, for compassionate voices to help explain and connect the journey.
It’s one of the areas in which artists could make a huge difference.
Artists are able to translate societal currents in a way that many of us cannot. Artists could explore the ways in which people emerge from the prison system and reconnect to the world at large. Artists could explore the ways in which systems work or fail for people who can’t always figure out how to navigate them. Artists could explore the human condition of separation and isolation, and the ways in which we all make our connection back into the world.
But artists aren’t doing so in a large scale way. And I think there’s room for artistic intervention in this society-wide epidemic of re-entry failure.
One of Mural Arts’ main programs is Restorative Justice. That phrase, restorative justice, references the process of gathering victims, offenders, and the community, and engaging in healing processes that strengthen our neighborhoods. Restorative justice flips our perceptions of former prisoners, explores the ways that they can make a positive difference within their community, and heals some of the hurt they caused through previous actions. It’s a process that connects well with our core belief, that art ignites change, as community members connect to each other through art, through creating something together, bridging the gap of hurt, confusion, and distrust in a way that words often cannot.
And I’m excited that we’re exploring these themes in a citywide fashion with Open Source, our month long, citywide public art exhibition. Three artists, Sam Durant, Shepard Fairey, and SWOON are taking a deep dive into how we connect back to society and how we can explore these themes through art making.
For Open Source, Sam Durant delved into Philadelphia’s prison system. He met with people in and outside of the prison system, gaining insight into how their lives had been affected. One man, a participant in the workshop, told Sam that going to prison was like getting lost in a maze of systems. The comment sparked an artistic product: Labyrinth, a chain-link fence maze, now installed in Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall. The maze is transparent, but as visitors add objects representing their personal stories to the maze’s walls, it will become opaque, covered with powerful stories and images.
Shepard Fairey, the creator of OBEY Giant, looked at stories of strength after incarceration. He chose two images of people who have found a path back into society—a path that’s been meaningful, positive, and interesting for each of them. Creating murals of both people, Shepard is taking a look at how people who were incarcerated reconnect to the world and asks us if we as a society can forgive.
SWOON took a look at the subject of reconnection through the lens of mental health and trauma. After working with women in a halfway house, at Graterford SCI, and with Mural Arts’ Guild Program, SWOON developed intimate portraits of the people she met, telling their stories through compelling imagery and presentations throughout October.
I’m proud that Mural Arts is shining a light on this, and I think it’s time to see what artists around Philadelphia and the world can create and do to bring attention to restorative justice and our criminal justice system. I can’t wait to see what innovation and new ideas the creative response unlocks. As a city and a country we need to understand that artists are often the most creative thinkers in our society and by supporting them in their work we are helping to solve some of our more intractable problems.
Photo by Steve Weinik, © 2015, SWOON.