Dec 7, 2016

Practicing vibrancy among vacancy

by: Mel Gervasio and Caitlin Butler

It’s not uncommon for artists to see potential in unused spaces. It’s deep in the roots of Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival; provides fuel for Hidden City; and what our friends at RAIR are actively exploring. It’s a way to keep art at the core of places where changes have, are, or will be happening.

So, as an organization with a city-wide mandate and one dedicated office, how does Mural Arts extend the presence, accessibility, and impact of art in every corner of our city? One way is the transformation of vacant storefronts and unused public spaces into hubs of creative activity.


  • Hub at journey2home. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • The Philly Painting hub. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Make, Weave, Sew Sale at Southeast by Southeast, December 2015. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Mike Reali.

The initial impulse behind this practice was simple—we needed spaces to work, and storefronts were available and affordable in most places. Our beloved Love Letter collaboration utilized a storefront space along the El in West Philly. We rented a previously vacant space in North Philadelphia for Philly Painting and another in Mantua for journey2home, which also transformed a shipping container on a vacant lot into a gallery and gathering space. We converted a vacant storefront in South Philadelphia into a hub for Southeast by Southeast, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary.

We program hubs, but also operate them with an open door policy. This provides folks the chance to stop by on their own terms to learn more about the work being done, connect to services provided by partner organizations, and identify what they would like to happen in their neighborhood. These spaces minimize the physical, social and emotional distance between artists, partners, and communities and also serve as a reminder that work is in process even before visual products emerge.

Mapping out the hub spaces around the city. Check out our interactive map to see where we've been, where we are, and where we're going!

Interactive Map

Our use of hubs has surpassed convenience to become an essential element of our artistic practice. Neighborhood Time Exchange, which ended about one year ago, provides a snapshot of how our hub-based work has progressed and continues to generate important new learnings.

Time Exchange was developed through a collaboration with Broken City Lab the People’s Emergency Center in a previously vacant storefront on Lancaster Avenue—a historic commercial corridor that cuts across Mantua. In exchange for studio space, a stipend, and supplies, artists made residents’ ideas for community improvements come to life. The three artist cohorts produced over 50 projects, including community discussions focusing on black women’s lives and safety, colorful signage for a community garden, a New Freedom Historic Walking Tour brochure for the New Africa Center, and a sensory room for special needs students at Martha Washington Elementary School.

Projects created by the Neighborhood Time Exchange. Photo by Albert Yee.

Throughout Time Exchange, artists consistently expressed that they wished for more time with the community. The side of the exchange that was to benefit artists ended up being less about access to studio space and more about access to people and places. Artists wanted to dive deeper into the changes residents wanted to see, into the things they felt art could do for their neighborhood. We’ve seen firsthand how long-term investments of artistic energy can address the sometimes veiled, intersectional needs of communities, and we are thrilled that People’s Emergency Center is exploring ways to continue Time Exchange this year.

In the welcoming and organic spaces of Mural Arts hubs, we aim to provide common access points for extraordinarily diverse communities to meet, build trust and understanding, and become active and influential in the face of a rapidly changing city. In the coming years, several Mural Arts projects and initiatives will continue to hone this practice. We hope you and your community will join us.

Last updated: Dec 7, 2016

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