Mural Arts in the Public Sphere

We often encounter public art employed to invigorate residential and commercial spaces as well as to provide insights into the unique culture and history of a community or geographic area. According to the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia:

Public art is a part of our public history, part of our evolving culture and our collective memory. It reflects and reveals our society and adds meaning to our cities. As artists respond to our times, they reflect their inner vision to the outside world, and they create a chronicle of our public experience.[1]

Contemporary theorists have identified a key difference between ‘public art’ and ‘art in public places.’ ‘Public art’ can be understood as that which constructs a public whereas ‘art in public places,’ while it may have public value, is art that is publicly accessible and is characterized by “bureaucratic legitimization.”[2]

What does it mean to construct a public? According to public art theorist Hilde Hein, “Unlike popular or mass art, it [public art] does not assume a preexistent generic audience to be entertained or instructed but sets out to forge a specific public by means of an aesthetic interaction.”[3]  In this case, art-making serves as a social process in which art expresses and affects its culture. Art in public spaces often links patrons by spatial orientation and little else.

One form of art, the mural, sometimes serves as public art and sometimes as art in public space. The following three artist organizations, I argue, seek to use murals as a form of public art.

The Beehive Design Collective, a nonprofit art activist group based in Maine, develops murals to engender discussion of social justice issues. This organization’s principals see their role as educators, presenting graphics that tell stories that might not otherwise be broadly salient in public conversation. Examples of such concerns include mountain top removal coal mining, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, biotechnology, and colonialism. When the group elects to address a question, Collective artists committed to working on the piece travel and meet with stakeholders who have been directly affected by the issue they have chosen to depict.  Beehive mural narratives are captured through conversations with the people touched by the issue or concern portrayed, and translated by the artist into graphics. The Collective suggests that their hope, serving as “anonymous translator”, is that “these visual tools […] will self-replicate, and take on life of their own.”[4]

The Bogside Artists of Belfast and Londonderry, Northern Ireland draw on their personal experience of living through a period of deep political conflict referred to as ‘The Troubles’ in their province, and is described as “A violent thirty-year conflict that began with a civil rights march in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 and concluded with the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998. At the heart of the conflict lay the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.”[5] With more than 3,600 people killed and injured and psychological damage afflicting more than 50,000 more, this legacy of violence has had a lasting impact on the region’s residents. The Bogside Artists attempt to address the deeper emotional and spiritual dimensions of the suffering in Northern Ireland through their murals, “Our murals stand therefore as the not too silent witnesses to the colossal price paid in suffering and brutalization by a hopelessly innocent people in their struggle for basic human rights.”[6]  Through twelve pieces the artists re-present some of the most significant events of the 30-year conflict, “In telling this story they have served a pressing need for their community and Derry’ people in general to acknowledge with dignity if not pride the price paid by those who became victims of the struggle for democratic rights.”[7]

Groundswell is a nonprofit organization based in New York City that brings together artists, youths, and members of community organizations to use art as a tool for social change. The institution’s leaders view their group’s murals as a tool for beautification as well as a process to engage and facilitate the empowerment of youth and to introduce otherwise underrepresented perspectives into the public dialogue. While the impetus for bringing together artists, teens, community organization representatives and funders varies, the collaborative mural-making process is the same across all Groundswell projects. First, the purpose of a proposed effort must be identified clearly. Following this step, participating young artists undertake intensive research, which includes interviewing community residents and issue experts.  Artists and youths then work together in design sessions to create a shared vision of a concept for the mural. The engaged artists work during this process to ensure the final product has artistic integrity while preserving the contributions of individual team members.[8] Once the design has been developed, participating teens share their work with community members and stakeholders for feedback. Following this public input process, the group responsible for a mural revises its design to reflect those comments. The final stage of the mural making process includes fabrication, during which the young people involved gain experience and develop insights into the art-making process. Groundswell mural creation efforts conclude with a celebratory public dedication of each completed piece. Groundswell’s organizers have observed that, “Through this process, we’ve seen over and over again how public art can activate space and convert it into something extraordinary–inspiring reflection, revelation, action, and change.”[9]

The Association for Public Art in Philadelphia states, “Public art is a reflection of how we see the world—the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.”[10] These three artist organizations demonstrate varying means by which art can be used to create a public—expressing and affecting the culture from which it derives. Interestingly, the role of the artist in the process varies across these entities as well. The Beehive Design Collective artists gather stories and translate those voices into a graphic advocating for a specific perspective on a social justice issue reflected in the narratives they studied. The Bogside Artists share their lived experience and work to express and reflect the on going psychological and spiritual suffering of a post-conflict population. Finally, Groundswell artists seek to facilitate a group and community creative process. In addition, they seek to ensure artistic integrity so that the mural, resulting from a robust stakeholder consultation process and youth involvement, can achieve maximum impact. What joins all three of these organizations is the view that murals should do more than simply convey a single artist’s creative vision. Instead, artists from each of these groups capture stories and work to portray those narratives in a public setting to generate reactions and responses while seeking to ensure as they do, that accounts shared will be heard, considered, and questioned by the widest public practicable.


Jackie Pontious has earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Policy and Planning from Virginia Tech and is currently working towards a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and a Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Her research interests are in nonprofit governance and leadership and the role of the arts in community change and healing. Before Graduate School she worked for a local nonprofit corporation, Community Housing Partners, on a U.S. Department of Labor stimulus grant to train unemployed and dislocated workers in renewable energy and energy efficient construction practices. Prior to this she has worked for a range of nonprofit organizations on sustainability and social justice issues across Appalachia and Virginia. Jackie is also an artist with her medium of choice being paint, digital art and graphic design. You can view her artwork here:

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