Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mural Arts: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This year, the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts will be helping the city celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Mural Arts Program. The success of the MAP isn't just noted for its lavish, colorful murals adorning Philadelphia's less desirable neighborhoods or vacant walls, but it's been echoed in cities around the world, a solution to profane graffiti and blight.

But in recent years the MAP's relevance has been called into question. As Philadelphia gets cleaner, as vacant lots are filled in with new construction, the MAP has found itself a divisive organization, even contentious. Once was a time when residents of our struggling neighborhoods longed for the MAP to come to their vacant corner, the MAP could propose anything, professional or amateur, and the city would oblige.

Now that the city's poorer neighborhoods are covered in murals, the MAP's mission has changed, with grand murals gracing the sides of buildings in our city's most successful neighborhoods. But while the MAP's mission has evolved, its self assigned image as necessary and welcome hasn't. There are places that don't need murals, even places where the murals themselves serve as the visual blight the program once attempted to eradicate.

The MAP has become too much of a good thing.

That fact has made itself evident in the program's most recent proposal, a pair of 100 foot wide paintings along the Schuylkill River at the base of the Girard Avenue Bridge.

The base of the bridge is nothing significant and the paintings, a tribute to the Schuylkill's rowing history, would be tasteful. But the Department of Parks and Recreation didn't simply offer MAP blind approval. Although the Art Commission was consulted in the murals' approval, Parks and Rec's deputy Mark Focht took the murals under thoughtful consideration, recognizing that Fairmount Park, even along the heavily trafficked Kelly Drive, may not need the MAP.

Although Focht noted that Fairmount Park is not devoid of art, sculptures cast in bronze or carved from native stone surrounded by boxwoods and ivy don't interfere with the natural experience our parks offer. Brightly colored paintings on the other hand, can be more distraction than complement.

The MAP had no intention to segue into Fairmount Park until veteran rower Tony Schneider offered the program $85,000 towards the paintings, so it's not clear if the precedent will encourage the MAP to creep further into the woods or if this is a one time deal.

Time will tell.

For this location, a mural may be an improvement. While the success of the Schuylkill River Trail speaks for itself, murals on the underside of this unimpressive bridge will probably do nothing to improve or hinder the trail's experience. They will simply exist.

As for the program itself, finding itself in front of the desk of resistance should signal to those in charge that their goal was never to cover Philadelphia in a coat of Duron. Philadelphia is exciting and dynamic on its own, especially in the vast panoramic views from Fairmount Park and Kelly Drive. 

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