Tucson Mural Arts Program struggles to awaken city's public art scene
The Tucson Murals Project commissioned eight murals with a $50,000 grant from the Tohono O'odham tribe to cover up graffiti in the Tucson Warehouse Arts District. This mural is done by artist Rock Cyfi Martinez on the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Co. building downtown.
The “starving artist” is a timeless cliche that both glorifies and belittles the alternative lifestyle of those who creatively express themselves for a living. But where do we draw the line between an occupation as an artist and those who feel an unrestricted need to share visual art, such as a graffiti artist who creates vandalism? The key word is permission, and a local organization is doing its best to stretch that line between vandalism and art to encourage Tucson’s undiscovered artists to enter into the world of public murals.
If you take a walk through downtown Tucson, you’re bound to see at least one of the 34 colorful murals that engulf entire sides of old buildings. It may seem like these works of art just arbitrarily appear throughout the city center, but local organization Tucson Arts Brigade is the force behind these murals. TAB creates public art with one primary goal in mind: to beautify and unify Tucson.
TAB has worked to develop and execute community arts efforts since 1996. Over the past seven years, TAB’s Tucson Mural Arts Program has aimed to prove how impactful public art can be.
Michael Schwartz, president of TAB, has worked with mural arts programs for over 30 years. A UA alumnus, Schwartz worked with the city of Philadelphia to coordinate their mural arts program before coming back to Tucson. Schwartz said the program was hugely successful in Philadelphia and Tucson could follow in the city’s footsteps if the whole community got on board.
“This is a town where you can solve problems,” Schwartz said. “There’s a great deal of poverty, and we know how to solve these problems. It’s just a matter of funding, which is our biggest issue.”
Each mural costs a couple thousand dollars to make, depending on the size and scale. Schwartz claims that thousands of dollars per month are spent by Tucson Parks and Recreation to paint over graffiti and walls with old paint. TAB finds it hard not to see the benefits of implementing murals instead of incurring continual debts with constant repairs and repainting of graffiti.
Schwartz and his fellow artists have tried to expand the Mural Arts Program, but funding always proves the biggest obstacle.
Muralist Ignacio Garcia sees a bright future for Tucson muralists but said funding, among other issues, still prevents the city from becoming an oasis of public art and creativity.
“It’s just because of the funding and the city—it’s a slow process,” Garcia said. “I don’t think there are enough murals that [people] can have an attraction to. You want to have art that people want to flock to, and there’s not enough exposure or education in murals.”
Garcia painted the mural of PAC-12 basketball commentator Bill Walton riding a jackalope on the side of The Rialto Theatre, something Garcia describes as very Tucson.
The downtown murals have brought more people to the city center and helped spark tourism, but downtown is just the first step. Awareness of the importance of art is an incessant issue in any community. Garcia said funding for the arts seems to always take a backseat.
Education and awareness are necessary to build a strong art community, and local governments ultimately have the most direct power in supporting the arts with taxpayer money. So far, the City of Tucson has not shown much financial support for the program.
“We have not been able to find one elected official who has gotten behind us,” Schwartz said. “The city of Tucson decided to compete with us, got a $50,000 grant from the [Tohono O’odham] nation and then eventually handed it over to the Mural Arts Program.”
While there’s no doubt that Tucson has a buzzing art scene, it has yet to reach its current potential despite the money that’s here. Schwartz said that in mid to large American cities, the budget for museums of contemporary art tends to be around $2-3 million. The wealth is here, but the city’s demographics often prevent funding from flowing into the right avenues.
Wealth disparity in Tucson is an issue within itself, but the more involved the community becomes with public art, the more funding and support TAB could receive. In order to get the community involved in supporting muralists, people need to see the vibrancy that completed murals bring to their neighborhoods.
TMAP’s small-scale mural site, the Bronx Wash, is a great solution to this frustrating paradox.
The narrow wash on Fourth Avenue and Linden Street sits in the center of the historically black neighborhood of Sugar Hill. Several mural sites have already been completed by a variety of artists, including a local graffiti tag artist that Schwartz helped convert to a muralist. Artists just starting out with murals paint their work on the walls of the wash before moving on to larger murals.
The Bronx Wash is just a mile and a half from campus, and Schwartz encourages UA art students and artists to take advantage of this opportunity.
Art education freshman Emma Bayne did just that, and after going to an event advertised through her UA email, she found a way to integrate her passion for art with serving the Tucson community.
“If I hadn’t opened that email and gone to that event, I wouldn't be doing this,” Bayne said. “Take every opportunity given to you by the [UA].”
Bayne compares the texture of the Bronx Wash wall to that of an English muffin but enjoys the challenge it brings her as a painter. She said working with Schwartz and MAP has taught her more than any UA class ever did. She said there’s so much untapped potential for new artists to learn here in Tucson that it’s essentially an entire city of unpainted canvas.
“Stop saying you have talent and just start painting on walls,” Bayne said. “I want to see more people experiment with things and test the waters. Always question authority.”
Of course, questioning authority comes with its own parameters. Bayne agrees with Schwartz that creating murals can chase away graffitists in a positive way.
“If you paint a mural over graffiti, the graffiti artist will respect it, and possibly want to learn how to make one themselves,” she said.
Garcia said that murals could give many graffiti artists a sense of direction and serve as positive representations for their artistic voices.
Funding still remains the biggest issue from all angles, but more artists involved with the program could lead to more fundraising efforts and ultimately, more murals.
Schwartz continues to try and lobby for support from the city of Tucson but said that the inefficiencies and questionable motives in our city government lie at the root of the problem. UA students interested in art can really make a difference by both joining TMAP and raising awareness about the program and the importance of public art.
TMAP has meetings once a month downtown at Shot in the Dark Cafe, with the next meeting happening Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. TAB is also organizing an international art project in Ajo, Arizona where artists from all over the Southwest, and many from other countries, will meet to paint murals, play music and camp for a week in the town.
United Way was going to offer TAB $20,000 for murals to be painted in Tucson but withdrew the money when it found out every mural has to be designed by independent artists, according to Schwartz. Though there have been some generous contributions from private parties and organizations, funding in Tucson arts programs is still an issue.
Artists aren’t always revered as heroes of the community, but the starving artist who can unite a community with the stroke of their brush can certainly make meaningful change, whether it be immediate or delayed.
"My goal is to inspire the artists behind me,” Garcia said. “I want to see talent that’s better than me and I want to influence raw talent because I know it’s here.”
For more information on the Tucson Mural Arts Program, visit its website.
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