May 15

muraLAB: Rapid Response

by: Norah Langweiler

Few of us were ready when the pandemic hit the streets of Philadelphia, but the quick response from the city ensured that the crisis stayed under control. On Wednesday, May 13, Mural Arts’ innovative program, muraLAB, gathered a panel of experts to discuss the role of art in Philadelphia’s rapid response to the pandemic. Watch the full conversation.

Not Ready for This 

When the virus hit, it was unlike anything we’d seen before – and most of us weren’t ready for it. Senior Projects Coordinator for Get Healthy Philly with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Mica Root said she was more concerned about finishing her report on water access in schools than she was on dealing with a potential pandemic. It wasn’t until it hit the streets of Philadelphia that she, like many of us, realized how serious this was.

“My division doesn’t usually think that much about infectious diseases or crisis response. Luckily the health department is made up of many divisions including the division of disease control and the health commissioner who had been preparing for this,”said Mica. “But when it actually came to Philadelphia, it called on all of us to bring all our skills and experience to the table. It let me go back to some of my networking and organizing roots to work with lots of exciting collaborators on the health department’s response.”

The pandemic has required a pivot from all of us. Artist, muralist, and graphic designer, Nile Livingston, said that she kicked her work into high gear, recognizing that art is not just for expression or communication – it is a tool for survival. 

COVID-19 handwashing station temporary mural by Nile Livingston. Photo by Conrad Benner.

Art is More Essential than Ever 

As organizations like Mural Arts began to urgently respond to the crisis, we asked our artists, employees, and community members to do so as well. Executive Director of Mural Arts, Jane Golden, noted that “right away, we launched a partnership with Broad Street Ministry for handwashing stations with temporary murals to draw attention and deliver essential messaging about safety and hygiene for those experiencing housing insecurity – over 5,000 people in Philadelphia. Nile Livingston was one of the artists who turned a mural around in record time to launch this badly needed project.”

“I saw the need for art more now than ever. I saw the mural as an opportunity to uplift spirits, share information, and to draw attention to this public resource,” Nile said of her response to the pandemic. “I tried to reflect what was happening in the world and at that time more people were wearing masks so I made sure all the figures were wearing masks. It was painted very quickly, when the pandemic began, I felt the need to stay up all night and produce work very quickly for the rapid response project – this is one of them.”

Because of Mural Arts’ wide breadth of program offerings, the pivot looked different for each department. Homeschool with Mural Arts followed soon after the hand washing stations, moving much of our in-person Art Education programming online. Our Guild program for formerly incarcerated individuals switched their focus to learning digital literacy and soft skills like resume building. Porch Light, focused on tackling mental health through art, recruited artists to create a coloring book that shares the public health messages and provides tips for mental wellness throughout this time. We’ve moved our in-person tours online as well, offering virtual tours by pairing drone footage with narrations from our guides and local media personalities.  

Space Pads, artist-designed vinyl decals spaced six feet apart on the ground to encourage social distancing, were the second concrete project Mural Arts was able to contribute. The decals have been offered to food distribution sites, local businesses, and public spaces – including six Philadelphia Housing Authority Sites – any location that receives lots of foot traffic. The partnership with the Department of Public Health is a showcase of how good design can influence public health safety at a critical moment.

“When we connected with Mural Arts, it actually wasn’t the Space Pads that got us interested,” said Mica Root, “It was actually Nile’s mural that inspired me to reach out. So, I texted someone close to Jane and 15 minutes later we were in conversation about how to partner. I didn’t realize how much art could play a role in public health messaging but partnering with you, I’m converted.”

Public art has the power to educate and protect our communities and the long-term impact cannot be ignored. It speaks to our collective survival.

 “Only an artist can tell… what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.” – James Baldwin

 Nile Livingston referenced the many well-known and powerful artists like Frida Kahlo and Paul Robeson who created masterpieces in their own isolation or exile. “Now more than ever we need artists to go to work. Although we are always struggling, when we feel it more than ever, like now, is the time when artists need to step in and offer us more hope for the future.”

 Perhaps the most exciting thing about this moment of crisis, because every crisis presents an opportunity for transformation, are the ways that the things which were not possible in normal times can become possible in extraordinary circumstances. Mica Root noted that “cities around the country have turned the water back on in homes that were overdue because they couldn’t afford it. It has taken this moment to understand that everyone needs water whether or not they can pay for it. At the level of interdepartmental cooperation within the city, we are figuring out ways of communicating and, sometimes, cutting through the bureaucracy that keeps us working in silos. The moment has demanded these things and we have been able to rise to meet it.”

Space Pads designs from various artist.

Looking Ahead 

With so much at stake right now, all of us need to be part of the policy solutions. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was greenlit in the 1930’s to help get our population back to work and jumpstart a lagging economy of those who couldn’t afford to feed their families or pay their bills. The jobs covered everything from road and building construction to public art that boosted the morale of the masses. “I like to think of Mural Arts as the reincarnation of the WPA,” said Jane Golden.

 Art can also serve as a beacon for many, a rallying cry that can bring attention to the systemic issues that plague our communities during normal times, but decimate them during a crisis like this one. Nile Livingston sees art’s role as “changing the status quo – highlighting issues that are already being magnified by the pandemic.”

Including artists in the conversation is essential for finding creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. “Artists think about things in ways that no one else does,” said Jane. 

Mica Root added that there are already so many artists in spaces like city government, we just need to put out the call to allow them to bring their whole selves to the job. “We need to bring all our talents to the table. If there are already people working for the city that are artists, how do we access that side of them in addition to their civil service?”

These are the types of questions that need to be answered in our recovery from this. How can we maintain the understanding we’ve gained of the holes in our systems, recover from this pandemic and plan for the next one? How do we ensure that the inequities of who is impacted and who is dying are not the same people next time? “We need to understand that housing is health, water is health – purely pragmatically for the city, state, and country – we need to figure out a different way of organizing those things,” Mica said.

We are on the brink of a movement, with art as a central cog for mobilization. The WPA helped us forge a strong local and national identity and artists working today, during this time of crisis, can start a movement to show our policymakers and our elected official the vital role art can play in response to local, national, and global crises.

Last updated: May 15, 2020

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