Illegal dumping cost Camden millions of dollars a year – expenses the city can ill afford to bear. So a local group installed public art projects to raise awareness of the issue. A New View: Camden, initiated by nonprofit Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and funded by a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, is a citywide sculpture project comprising six large topical statues. The project was unveiled on Earth Day.
“We look at the large sculpture projects as an opportunity to really change the perceptions of the residents, but to raise awareness of this issue of illegal dumping is also very important to us because the city on average spends about $4.5 million a year to clean up trash that has been illegally dumped,” said Cooper’s Ferry President and CEO Kris Kolluri. “That money could be used to fill potholes and parks, but instead it’s being used to clean up trash that others see fit to dump in the city of Camden.
“It’s long been a dumping ground, going back 30 to 50 years, but that’s no longer the case, and we’re working very hard to change that narrative and the reality, frankly,” Kolluri said.
A New View includes a massive black panther sculpture fashioned from repurposed cars, a machine that uses mealworms to eat Styrofoam packaging from e-waste and a two-story steel trash collecting creature.
To Kolluri, the project isn’t just about the financial burden imposed by the dumping. “I think the human toll is measurably disturbing and the demoralizing effect on residents is perpetual. What we hope is when people stand and pause at the inherent beauty of the sculptures, we want people to think about the richness of Camden’s environment and the need to preserve it from desecration,” Kolluri said. “That to me is a journey to capture and preserve and cherish the soul of the city.”
Another goal, he said, is bringing people into town, who will see what he sees in Camden—not a recovered city, but a city in recovery—and nurturing the nascent arts economy where the benefits will be both social and economic.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported in March that arts and cultural economic activity accounted for 4.3%, or $919.7 billion, of current-dollar gross domestic product, in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, arts and cultural economic activity increased 3.7% in 2019 after increasing 2.3% in 2018.
Still, it’s not easy to quantify the economic effects of public art because it produces no tickets or admission revenue. Few if any hard numbers are available on its effects.
But projects are proliferating. In Newark, Newark Arts has commissioned dozens of murals throughout the city and connected local artists with paid work through its Newark ArtSource arm, which serves as an intermediary for developers building new buildings or revitalizing old structures and want their spaces to reflect local culture.
“It’s become a photoshoot destination. I don’t know if you know this, but certain people are mural finders internationally. We’re attracting international mural watchers that come to see the murals here,” said Newark Arts Director of Marketing & Artistic Initiatives Lauren Craig. “We see public art as something that should be invested in, and we worked with various different entities to [make that happen].”
In conjunction with its 40th anniversary, Newark Arts will be launching a public art initiative to highlight the city’s murals. Details have yet to be made public.
Down south, Atlantic City Arts Foundation Executive Director Joyce Hagen said that talking about the murals from an economic standpoint with her community has been challenging “because we’re a casino community and the values system is just a little different when you talk about what murals can bring to the community compared to what casino gambling can.”
The city boasts over 50 murals, though, and 27 painted Adirondack chairs along its famous boardwalk.
Most of the public artworks have popped up in the last three years through ACAF’s flagship 48 Blocks program, which ties together the murals with an interactive online map for folks who wish to go mural hopping. The interest is apparent: Throughout the month of May, ACAF shared stories of local artists on their social media pages as they started or completed four different murals. The increase in more in-depth mural content caused month-over-month social media engagement increase of 42%, Hagen said.
The organization is in talks with the local convention and conference bureau to create a mural walking tour for groups that come to town, and Hagen said there’s a potential for international media coverage on the mural program in the fall. “Once that really gets out to the international community, then I’m really hoping we can see and learn more about those folks coming to town as they come and support our local industry,” Hagen said.
For artists, some of whom live by the art they’ve created, the economic impact of these projects is personal. One of the six New View sculptors is local, and Subaru of America provided funding to pay local artist apprentices to work alongside the sculptors. In Newark and Atlantic City, several of the artists are local folks.
For Newark Arts, getting artists paid is part of the mission. “A lot of people come to us with the idea of ‘let’s put up a two-story mural and we’ll pay the artist in exposure. For us, that doesn’t work. You can’t pay your PSE&G bill with exposure,” Craig said.
While the Atlantic City Arts Foundation could only cover artists’ materials in its inaugural year, all artists get a stipend plus material costs now.
One artist, Kelley Prevard, has been commissioned for international work since displaying her first piece in Atlantic City. Others have been commissioned for private work from businesses or individuals nearby.
For those who live in muralled communities, the art can bring both economic opportunity and joy. The murals spawned a citywide cultural festival in the resort town under the moniker 48 Blocks, and it’s scheduled to kick off the third week of June this year for its fifth year in a row. (2020 was, like most things, virtual.)
In Newark, Murals Market Music will happen on Treat Place on June 5 and July 10 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. The program is led by Four Corners Public Arts, a public-private partnership among The City of Newark, Invest Newark, Newark Arts, Newark Downtown District, Paramount Assets, and RBH Group; and Urban Agriculture Cooperative, a Newark-based nonprofit with a mission to heal the local food system.
This programming is the first of its kind around these murals. “With a vendors’ market on this street with all the murals in the backdrop, there will be performances, book signings, music. When people come into town and [engage local business], the whole city is lifted up,” Craig said.