Every mural project begins with a single individual with a vision.
This person is someone who understands that art changes how a space feels, how individuals experience the space in their community. If you are considering heading up a mural project, it is critical to understand up front that most people won’t get it until they see it. Once the mural is up, 95% of the community will love it. As in, “This is the best thing since sliced bread and now I take a new route to work every day.” Five percent of people will always prefer things how they used to be. This group is a very small fraction of the population, and they are not your target audience.
This person with the vision is typically not the artist. It is unseemly for an artist to promote themselves, to dig up work for themselves at the public expense, and to spend countless hours navigating the bureaucratic process when really, they should be spending their time practicing their craft. The ideal quarterback for a public art project is not the artist but someone like you: someone who understands the positive impact a mural project could have on your community. There is no magic formula to success, it is more like a persistent hustle. The good news is that I have seen lots of successful projects, community transformations, for those who persist. Every project I have been on has happened because one individual saw an opportunity to put something beautiful together, and then just figured out how to make it happen the best they could.
I am hoping that this document will provide you with some clues to help you along. I am an artist and I have never coordinated a community mural project successfully on my own. It’s not because I haven’t tried. The advice I am giving is my observations from watching project coordinators that were successful.
Your job, as vision keeper of the project, is not to get defeated when, initially, people respond to your enthusiasm the way they most people do, with resistance or apathy. Art on canvas can be incubated gently, protected from the outside world and its harsh criticism. This is not so with mural art. When working in the public space you have to go out and hustle your idea. You must become an art evangelist. Your idea will require cooperation from individuals in variety of roles. Your idea, however awesome, will be met with skepticism. The trick is communicating your vision and winning onto your team a handful of people that can help make your vision a reality. Warning: The majority of people you share your idea with will probably think you are crazy. You are not crazy. You are pursuing the easiest and most brilliant way to bring vibrancy and pride into your neighborhood, business, or city. The appreciation does not come until much later.
Decide on what part of your town could use to be “activated” or benefit most from a beautification project. Ugly and windowless walls are perfect; they have the most to gain from a makeover. Create a shortlist of four or five walls that are the best candidates. If, despite your best efforts, your first choice wall does not pan out, you can move on to plan B, C or D. There is usually no shortage of walls that would make great canvases for a mural. Sometimes, after one or two murals go up on other walls, and the success is experienced firsthand, then your first choice wall suddenly becomes an option again.
Public or privately funded?
In an ideal world, your community has a “percent for art” program. If that is the case, congratulations: your city already understands the value of public art and the chances of getting sponsorship or city support in your beautification project are good. I would recommend that you create a written proposal for your mural project and present it to the city employee that oversees the percent for art program.
If your city does not have a percent for art program, then your city officials likely do not have a budget or the political will to give your public mural project wings. The best approach in this situation is to target building owners, businesses, or private homes with public facing walls or fences. In this situation, instead of approaching the mural project as a charity case, make sure you communicate to the decision makers the economic value that is created by public art. It might be true that valuing art is a moral issue and that supporting the arts and artists is a noble cause. But the best way to find funding and get approvals is to appeal to practical realities:
- “Fine art” murals deter graffiti. The building owner saves money from graffiti remediation.
- Communities with beautiful mural art are more desirable to live and work in and as a result real estate prices going up. Depriving a community of beautification projects is not the best way to solve the challenge of affordable housing.
- Mural art makes a space more inviting, so visitors are more likely to walk rather than drive through a space, more likely to shop, or stop for coffee. The local economy receives an economic bump from the attention the art generates.
- Mural art is possibly the least expensive capital improvement project, compared to landscaping (and required maintenance that entails), hardscaping, or structural renovations and the impact and upgrade can be substantial.
- Murals require little maintenance and last 20-30 years.
Public art projects run by private individuals: How to approach businesses, building owners, and residential owners that have well positioned public facing walls.
Truly, this process is like trying to win over a shy wild animal. Knocking on doors might be one approach, but I have found it is not the most effective because it can feel too abrupt, too confrontational for the recipient. Casual conversations, referrals, networking through the chamber of commerce and local business events, promoting the idea among friends and social media and serendipitous encounters are typically more effective than targeting a single individual or business. If it is a great idea, doors will open. If you are able to open up a conversation about your amazing vision to transform the community through mural art with someone, anyone, I suggest you lead with images, not words. Also, do as much homework as you can ahead of time. This includes finding out who owns the spaces you are considering, how the space is used and by whom, and what the vision is for the art, and how it would serve the space.
Lead with images
Take a photo of the walls in consideration. Find images online of other murals you admire, or if you have identified a particular artist you want to work with, get images of their murals. Photoshop the photos of sample murals onto the photos you took of your local public walls. Print out this stack of images and show them to whomever you cross paths with. Talk up the local barista, librarian and city administrator. One in ten conversations might lead to another door opening that makes the project possible.
Why lead with images?
In my experience, the word “mural” is too ambiguous, and many people have a negative reaction to it. Many people have seen lots of ugly murals in their life and fewer beautiful, transformative murals. There are two ways around this challenge of perception. The first solution is easy: use different words. For example “wall art” or “decorative painting” or “large scale fine art”.
The second solution: don’t use words. Instead show them a picture. If you show someone a mural of something that you think is incredible, and they think it is terribly ugly, that is good to know. It saves you both a lot of words and time. However, if you show them something that piques their curiosity, you have just cleared one of the biggest hurdles in bringing your idea to fruition.
Working with a specific artist
Just as you would not ask to see the architectural designs of the building you want before you decide to hire the architect, you should not expect an artist to create a unique rendering for the project until the project is funded and a deposit is paid. However, by all means the architect should provide potential clients with examples of his or her work. If you are planning to work with an artist who has never painted a mural before, I think that is a bad idea.
If you are an aspiring public mural artist reading this, I highly recommend you paint at least 10 murals in private homes, or a “low stakes” environment first. In practical terms, this might look like a part time effort for about six months while you keep your day job. Your eighth mural is going to be leagues better than your second mural. Murals are a different sport than canvas painting. You will learn so much more through experience than I can describe in one paragraph, from respecting and working professionally in someone else’s space to what materials and approach fit best with your style. If your best friend or mom don’t trust you with their living room wall, it’s not fair for you expect the community to hire you to paint their living room walls. Like any professional work, take the time to learn and practice the craft. Amateur public mural art reflects badly on the genre and the community and is poor publicity for the badass mural artist you are going to become in just a few years.
Every situation presents its own opportunity. If there are not any experienced mural artists in your community, consider running the mural project as a mural workshop for local artists who want to learn how to paint murals. Find an experienced artist willing to travel to your community and take on apprentices while they oversee and ultimately guarantee the quality of the outcome. The local apprentices would be then more qualified to take on their own local mural projects in the future.
From red light to yellow light
Let’s get back to the shy wild animal, who might be, for example, a building owner, business owner, private resident, or funding party. From here on out I am going to call this person the “client”. The client is not inclined to taking risks. They only like sure bets. You have done your homework and you can show them pictures to cut through some errant perceptions and you can explain specifically how a mural would benefit their business personally. Then listen. Their reservations are the final hurdles in the race, and if you can help them remove the hurdles, then the project can move forward. This is also a great moment, when they are lukewarm, to figure out what they love most about their life and their community, what imagery they might want to see, so that you can suggest artwork that respects them and takes their preferences into consideration. This does not mean you are going to paint a twenty-foot tall portrait of the building owner on waterskies. It is up to the artist to intuitively piece together a work of art that is compelling to the community that also feels compelling for the client. It is appropriate for client to say, “I don’t want the artwork look messy.” Or “Can I see exactly what you are planning to paint before you start?” They are major stakeholders in how the artwork comes out, and they want to minimize their risk of failure. If they feel like they will have a voice in the creation of the mural, they are more likely to cooperate with and even fund the project. At the very least, it is best to begin these initial conversations with a collaborative approach, to see if there might be an alignment of goals, a win-win-win for the community, the artist and client.
Yellow light to green light
Let’s say you tell your barista Susie about the idea, and she thinks it sounds really cool so she tells her friend at church, Jim, who works at the company where your #1 favorite wall candidate lives. Thank Susie profusely for the tip and try to meet with Jim personally. You want to win him over to the merits of your idea so that he is willing to make a personal recommendation and introduction to Claire, the CEO of the company. Set up a short meeting at Claire’s office so you can walk downstairs and stand in front of the wall. Bring the artist to this meeting if you can, so you can answer all questions she might have on the spot. Know how much it will cost, how many parking spots you will need to block off and for how long. Know what approvals you need to get from the city. (City approval should be easy. Building owners have lots of legal domain over their walls, and the city is usually thrilled to get free art because even though they don’t want to pay for it they know all the benefits.)
Even though you have a good idea of the message and imagery you want to bring to this public space, it is helpful to understand what business Claire is in, and the company brand so you can find commonality between visuals and interests. Claire knows that supporting the community is good for her business, and she is going to get free advertising when the editorial article about the beautiful new mural on the side of the building they rent is on the front page of the local newspaper. Her business becomes associated with a positive community landmark. The artwork does not have to directly relate to her business but at the very least it should not reflect badly on her business.
Funding the project
TThere is no sure fire way to secure funding. Here are some broad suggestions you might find helpful:
- Do the legwork first so you can be as specific as possible about what the project will entail, so the mural project is as sharply into focus as possible for the client, or funders that you approach.
- Be flexible when trying to negotiate a deal. For example, you wanted “Mural A” but they only want to pay half the needed funds, so instead maybe you need to scale back the design on this one, and instead do a large element mural, “Mural B” instead, and maybe the success of that project will allow the dream mural the next time around.
- Communicate in the language that matters most to the person with whom you are communicating. Yes, there is inherent value in art, and a mural project will impart intangible benefits on the community, but there are also positive financial repercussions. Adjust your message depending on what they care about.
- The best place to find funding for a mural project is from the parties that directly benefit most from the value that the art brings to the community.
In the example I started above, Claire might run a business where image matters. It could be a clothing shop, a tech startup or a financial firm, but chances are good that projecting a specific look and feel on the outside of her business will benefit her brand directly. She might pay four times what a mural would cost to create a local marketing campaign in the community. She might be paying a premium on salaries to attract workers to her building that is under the freeway/in the alley/in an oppressively windowless and ugly building. Either way, it is likely this mural would directly benefit several categories of her business objectives, so she would fund it as an investment in her business.
Let’s say Claire doesn’t own the building but has a five year lease and she doesn’t want to pay the whole cost of the mural. If you can get Claire excited about the mural, she is the best candidate to negotiate rent reduction or negotiate a shared fiscal responsibility with the building owner.
Because this commercial/public hybrid collaboration opens up a can of worms and suspicion in people, I want to make an important clarification. I believe you can set up win-win partnerships where the imagery is driven by the artist, creatively reflects an important spirit that is unique to that community, and still provides benefit to that business. Will again use Claire as our business owner example. Let’s say her business is a pediatric dental office with a windowless white wall that faces the street. It would be appropirate, given the nature of her business, to want the art to appeal to kids and also look professional. This does not mean the artist needs to feel pigeonholed into painting a big smiling tooth-shaped cartoon character holding a toothbrush. If that is what your artist comes up with, find another artist. If the business is obstinate on unimaginative imagery, consider finding another wall or client. There are an infinite number of styles and imagery that would create a work of art that delights kids and looks professional and is also so incredibly compelling and awesome that the everyone in the community loves it whether they are a patron of that business or not. The art would not have to be “dental relevant” at all to benefit the business owner. The generous gift to the community will definitely get noticed and be appreciated. An adept artist has the capability to adjust color, composition, style and subject to meet design objectives that make the mural a win for the business and a win for the community.
Working with commercial and private parties to fund mural projects is a necessity. There are SO MANY ugly walls in every community waiting for a creative eye that could transform cookie cutter neighborhoods into more vibrant, interesting places. Waiting for city management to organize and fund a mural project takes a long time. Businesses, private residents and building owners have a natural blended interest and are more nimble. The trick is to find businesses and building owners who also love art and want to be a part of making the community a more loved and beautiful place.
The murals in public spaces that I have been a part of have all been funded by one of the categories I have mentioned already: building owners, business owners, developers, or a private resident who receives direct benefits from a wall they own that also happens to be public facing. I do not have experience with kickstarter campaigns, private funding of projects in public spaces, or soliciting funds from the community directly although these all seem like reasonable fundraising avenues.
The design process
First of all, don’t invite everyone to the party.
The design should be develop primarily by the artist, with some up front direction as well as general feedback from the client and maybe you. That’s it. The city can sign off yay or nay and I will get to that later. Great art is not made by a committee.
Start by talking, not drawing
Make sure that the purpose of the mural is clear and defined for all parties. Who is this mural for? What speed and angle will the viewer see it from? What is the energy or style we want to convey? What new future will be made possible by the completion of this mural? Once you know the purpose, you can make decisions about the design that keep the priorities in mind and be flexible to the preferences of the collaborating individuals.
You can do so many things with paint. Make things blend or disappear, make them pop, wrap images around the corner, onto the pavement, bring the eye where you want, surprise, calm, delight, whatever. You can do a few different things with each work of art, but you can’t do everything with every piece. A “kitchen sink” style mural that aims to please everyone and tell one story that pleases and represents every single person in the community is not the way to solve an interesting design challenge. Instead of “design by committee” make sure that the key parties are listened to, and that their opinion is taken into account at the beginning, but leave the artist to create a design that synthesizes the key priorities into a compelling visual.
Once the mural painting in underway, invite the community into the process wherever possible. Invite the local paper out to cover the project. Arrange “office hours” with the artist so people can ask questions about the project and engage. Collect first hand testimonials from the community about the impact the art has on them. In as many ways as you can, celebrate the project and any iceberg successes that the project creates.
But the first buzz around the mural is not the zenith of success. Success is the beautiful glow a mural creates in a community years after it was painted. It takes a while for a new piece to work it’s way in to the psyche of a community and fabric of daily life. The mural might become a favorite backdrop for quinciñera photo shoots. People start to use it as a reference point in local geography, for example the restaurant next to the _____ mural or give directions to their house by telling people to “turn right at the big ____”. The farmers market needs a second location, and they feel the parking lot next to the awesome mural has the vibrant community feel they were looking for. Children that used to point out details with their tiny fingers now whiz past the landmark on their way to middle school. Visitors from out of town tend to stop and park once they see the mural, to take a photo and explore the area to see what other unique thing they might discover. The other business in the area like how the mural you coordinated turned out and they hire different artists, and suddenly it is an artsy part of town, and individuals who want to live in a vibrant community are attracted to move there and start businesses. It is not an overnight phenomenon, but it starts with a single successful mural project. The one you have been thinking about but just don’t know where to start…