For social workers, being involved in a community art project can be among the most rewarding and dynamic experiences. Primarily focused on engaging a community or a group of people, community arts projects involve a variety of media and often function to facilitate a dialogue within a group. Many of these projects are created and envisioned with the help of professional artists. Some of the community arts projects included in this list offer children and adults an opportunity to create art and build self-esteem, some are a means to revitalize disenfranchised communities, and some simply offer people a place to express themselves through a visual means. The following community arts projects were chosen for their ingenuity, their resourcefulness, and their ability to fully engage and inspire their communities.
Featured in the 2010 documentary Waste Land, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz travelled to his native home to photograph and document the numerous workers at the world’s largest landfill, Jardin Gramacho. With Muniz’ assistance, the workers created a series of enormous self-portraits from the millions of recyclable items they recovered during their daily picks of Jardin Gramacho. The project was intended to offer the workers new perspectives on themselves and their communities, which are plagued by poverty and dangerous working conditions. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of the portraits are returned to the workers, and Muniz and the filmmakers of Waste Land have donated over $200,000 to the workers’ cooperative, including payment to those who posed for the portraits..
Created by Detroit artists Mira Burak and Kate Daughdrill and Osborn neighborhood residents, the Edible Hut is a study in a community’s ability to revive a fallen city. Lack of funding has forced many of Detroit’s parks and natural areas to be maintained by local residents, not the city itself, and the Edible Hut creates a community gathering area, as well as a space to grow and rebuild one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods. The hut, a structure composed of reclaimed materials, offers a shelter for educational activities, performances, and an outdoor retail space for selling the hut’s veggies. Plantings placed on top of the Edible Hut include veggies and other edibles that provide food for the community and help create shade over the structure. Burak and Daughdrill worked together with the support of local residents to help create an “area of community engagement.”
Created in 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jones, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest piece of community art in the world, and it was nominated in 1989 for the Nobel Peace Prize. The quilt is composed of over 48,000 panels, each handmade and dedicated to the memory of those who have lost their lives to the virus. In its infancy, AIDS victims were often marginalized and because little was known about the virus, many victims weren’t allowed standard funerals or burial services. Early on, the quilt project provided an outlet for families and friends to connect and memorialize those who were lost. Currently weighing 54 tons, the quilt tours the country regularly and provides a touchstone for healing.
Started in 1995, Seattle’s Urban ArtWorks employs, trains, and mentors at-risk community youth. The organization offers mid-level juvenile offenders a means to build self-esteem and confidence through creating murals along Seattle’s SODO Urban Arts Corridor. Beginning as a method for clearing the city of graffiti, the group has produced over 400 murals throughout Seattle. The program allows disadvantaged youths with an opportunity to earn wages and repay court ordered restitution to their victims while simultaneously offering opportunities for leadership and friendship. The communities involved benefit from these beautification projects, and the kids benefit by gaining confidence and a renewed sense of self worth.
Creativity Explored offers both creative space and art education to adults with developmental and severe disabilities. Founded in 1983 by artist Florence Ludins-Katz and her husband, psychologist Elias Katz, Creativity Explored seeks to provide a space for creative expression which the couple believed had the power to enhance personal identity and growth. The organization supports six yearly exhibitions of work ranging from painting and sculpture to handmade objects and books. Recently, nine of Creativity Explored’s members were showcased in an exhibition at the University of California at Berkley Art Museum. Mentors and volunteers work together to create an engaging and unique community for disabled adults to find their voices as artists.
Founded in 1986 by current Executive Director Jane Golden, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Programs initially began as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. Headed by Golden, the organization works together with artists and communities to increase neighborhood beautification through the arts. Golden’s team invites graffiti artists and local residents to contribute their creative visions to each project, and currently the organization has created 600 murals throughout the city. Pairing artists and communities together creates local pride and transforms urban spaces while simultaneously engaging residents and strengthening their communities.
Started by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the Mid-America Mural Project creates meaningful creative work through collaborations between artists and communities. Six sites throughout America’s heartland have acquired murals through the project, and many of the mural projects were physically created by members of the community while under the guidance of professional artists like David Loewenstein. Incorporating local history, people, and stories into each piece contributes to increased community pride and offers residents an opportunity to contribute to the enhancement of their own neighborhoods.
Los Angeles’ Skid Row is home to thousands of homeless residents and is known as the poorest part of the city. In 1985 performer and activist John Malpede set out to establish an organization that could help Skid Row residents tell their stories through artistic expression. With the hopes of ending negative stereotypes and decriminalizing poverty, the Los Angeles Poverty Department was born. Known as the first performance group composed of homeless people, as well as the first arts program created for homeless people, the LAPD, as they call themselves, creates regular performances and artworks to educate themselves and surrounding communities about inclusion and stereotypes. The group offers art workshops and is facilitated by a group of artists who offer mentorship and support. The LAPD gives Skid Row residents a voice and has won multiple awards for rethinking drug recovery programs and gentrification.
Formed in 1999 in Irvine, California, The Incredible Edible Park provides nearly 100,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to residents in need each year. Established on an unused easement, The Incredible Edible Park covers 7.5 acres that includes a number of varieties of edible crops as well as 80 fruit trees. Saving the city of Irvine nearly $4,500 yearly in weed control, the park is maintained and harvested by community volunteers, and the food is donated to the Second Harvest Food Bank which feeds nearly 200,000 people annually. An exercise in sustainability and community spirit, The Incredible Edible Park was one of the first of its kind and has inspired other community gardens to pop up across the country.
Founded in 1977 by Susan and Luis Cervantes in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Precita Eyes Muralists is a non-profit organization that seeks to educate and employ nearly 3,000 youths yearly. Offering community workshops and an opportunity to work on a number of mural projects throughout the city, the group’s first mural was created at the Bernal Heights Library. “A mural is a bridge to the community,” says founder Susan Cervantes, “The artists communicate with the people, meetings are held to discuss the issues. The result is a reflection, a mirror, of that community.”
A laundromat is a neighborhood’s meeting place. It is a place where community members gather weekly, and in 1999 Rise Wilson decided to help bring art education to her Harlem neighborhood laundromat. Setting up folding tables in front of the storefront, she extended passersby with a unique opportunity to make a piece of art. Nearly 15 years later, The Laundromat Project has served a number of communities throughout New York City, and offers low-income people of color a chance to learn and make art together thus, strengthening their communities. The organization has grown to include Works in Progress, which provides free arts education to local residents, and the Create Change Public Artist Residency, which asks chosen local artists to work within their community to create a community arts project.
Founded in New York City in 1996, Groundswell seeks to promote collaborative art making by combining community activism and personal expression. The organization, led by a number of artists, educators, and activists, brings together artists, youth, and community organizations with the intention of citywide beautification through murals and art installation projects. Local established artists lead smaller community groups through the mural making process, and have contributed to numerous citywide art installations including Recovery Diaspora by Swoon and the South Brooklyn mural, which was facilitated by artist Bayenga Kialeuke.
Assisting in the spread of art and education, Rise Up International seeks to give international underprivileged youth the materials to create art. Bringing together artists, youth, and their communities, the group seeks to use “art as a tool for social change,” and facilitates regular trips to Nicaragua, Albania, and Tunisia. The communities and children involved are taught the arts of mural making, silk-screening, and painting, and are encouraged to express themselves creatively. Offering education and voice to those who may not have either, Rise Up International, founded by Maria and Jesse Roberts helps remove children from dangerous working conditions and helps to create an outlook of hope through art.
Once the location of a number of brick row houses, the Berkley Community Garden and Peter Park have been in operation since the 1970s. Early plots were placed illegally on parcels of city land and were in danger of removal until the establishment of the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust was created to preserve the community’s garden spaces. In the 2000s, improvements were made and fencing and paved pathways were installed within the space. The gardens are open to the public and offer a unique opportunity for a diverse community to preserve their neighborhood and feed their families, thus engaging residents through collaborative work and fellowship.
Created by Converse Inc., CONS Project Los Angeles is the second in a series of projects designed by the popular clothing brand to “inspire the next generation of creative spirits through music, art, style, and sport.” The first of these projects was offered in Brooklyn in 2013 and provided local youth with free workshops like, “How to Make Beats,” and “How to Record Rock Music.” This second iteration also offers free workshops to kids ages 16 and over and includes educational activities led by a number of established and emerging artists in a variety of disciplines.
Seattle, Washington’s Beacon Food Forest is thought to be the largest food forest of its kind on public land in the United States. Created with the help of Beacon Hill’s diverse community alongside Harrison Design and Permaculture Now!, the project aims to bring the community together while concurrently providing healthy and affordable food to the community. Promoting cultural exchange as well as recreational and educational opportunities, the Beacon Food Forest includes a children’s area, a nut grove, and a berry patch. Residents contributed their own ideas to the food forest, and it has since become an area of local pride. The Beacon Food Forest is free and open to the public.
Founded in 1971, the Chicago Public Art Group, formally known as the Chicago Muralist Group helps to organize and promote community public art in Chicago. An elected group of “core artists” lead community projects like murals and playground structures, and have created hundreds of works of art over the last 40 years. Community residents, schools, and public areas have all benefited from the group’s work, and projects often incorporate significant local themes and community history.
New Orleans artist Candy Chang developed Before I Die after she lost a loved one. She painted the side of an abandoned building in her neighborhood with chalkboard paint, and stenciled the words, “Before I die I want to ________,” in a grid across it. Passersby contributed to the wall by filling in the blank spaces, and there are currently 475 walls in 30 countries that have been created using Chang’s original design. The project engages the public and facilitates discussion and connection within the communities involved.
Started by two Boston University students after the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, Still Running: An Art Marathon for Boston was created with the hopes of celebrating the city and promoting healing within the city’s neighborhoods. Students Luca De Gaetano and Taylor Mortell created a project comprised of three parts. Still Running offers a series of community art exhibitions showcasing a range of work that is submitted by people across the country. It also promotes fundraising through the sales of buttons and t-shirts designed by participating artists, with proceeds benefiting those affected by the tragedy. Lastly, regular “art marathons” are held to create work for first responders including firefighters and hospitals. These marathons involve and engage local communities and function as a way to facilitate healing.
In 1986 Tyree Guyton and his Grandpa Sam sought to create an outdoor art environment that would benefit Detroit’s deteriorating McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. Like many of Detroit’s neighborhoods, Guyton’s childhood neighborhood was greatly affected by the late 1960s riots, and he wanted to revitalize and improve his home through art. Creating the Heidelberg Foundation, Guyton and his grandfather began painting a number of dilapidated and abandoned buildings with brightly colored polka dots. They affixed large found objects, mosaics, and painted boards to many of the structures and quickly determined that the area, where many people were once afraid to walk, offered residents a sense of pride in their community. The organization uses art to promote discussion and offers young adults with free workshops to inspire creativity and self confidence.
Artist Candy Chang was invited to create a community project for Turku, Finland’s Career Path, which offers service between the local university and student housing. Chang stenciled the prompt, “When I was little I wanted to be a _____________, now I want to be a ___________,” along the path and provided chalk for community residents to contribute their answers. Similar to her Before I Die project, Chang simultaneously engages and entertains project participants.
Community gardens offer residents of a neighborhood a means of growing their own food and a sense of camaraderie and community. The North Austin Community Garden, opening in the spring of 2014 seeks to create a community gathering and work space that includes a teaching pavilion, teaching garden plots, a picnic area, and a butterfly garden. Maintained by volunteers, the garden offers organic gardening workshops through the Sustainable Food Center’s Basic Organic Garden Series, which educates residents and offers opportunities to expand an understanding about the importance of nutrition while working together.
The first installation of Illegal Art’s To Do was on Crosby Street in New York City in May 2006. The project, a number of Post-it notes spread across an unused storefront, encouraged passersby to contribute their to-dos, commands, reminders, or mantras. Illegal Art, a group founded in 2001 seeks to promote and inspire self-reflection, human connection, and conversation through their numerous participatory public art projects.
Similar in scope to the work of Candy Chang, Illegal Art’s In Complete first appeared in New York City in May 2006. A window display, with a chalkboard read, “I _________ because _________ makes me ________ and __________.” A bucket of chalk and a sponge were also nearby and participants were encouraged to fill in the blanks, add to previous participant’s contributions, and reflect on their own thoughts.
Creative Time, one of the nation’s first proponents of community based public arts projects, presented Key to the City by Paul Ramirez Jonas. The project, intended to instigate conversations about belonging, provided everyday citizens with an honorary “key” to the city. The key, created by Jonas, unlocked 20 sites across the city’s five boroughs and gave participants access to places like cemeteries, community gardens, and police stations.