Sometimes it’s difficult to explain why a cherished non-profit vanishes.
The Tucson Arts Brigade Mural Program emerged from a Nov. 11, 1995 Arts and Social Change Gathering. It was a popular idea that emphasized a collective voice and hands on action. For 24 years we designed and produced murals, workshops, gatherings, festivals and theater using a consensus based practice. Thousands of people from all walks of life participated.
The core of the organization was a vibrant year round after school program. Each of the sites emerged from a needs assessment process, often initiated by neighborhood organizations who had come upon resources to improve the places they lived. TAB offered arts based solutions to these needs.
TAB joined a national constellation of arts engagement organizations. The after-school programs produced works of art with visiting and resident artist. The participants selected an endless array of subjects; civil rights, border issues, gender equality, climate change, eco-justice, poverty, houslessness and anti war themes. TAB was a practice, a container - the participants created the content. The public enjoyed the end product.
The second part of our program was the community curated City Wide Outdoor Gallery that hired artists to paint murals. We encouraged visiting and collaborating artists to offer some sort of community engagement opportunity. This part of the program grew exponentially when we produced a series of murals downtown in collaboration with the city. We put our best practices in place, and the project was a success, as was the second round of downtown murals.
TAB's partners amplified the work by matching dollars raised. The burden fell on TAB to navigate a complicated and time consuming bureaucratic process that resulted in a work of public art. The lack of a clear local policy or road map for producing murals (let alone social practice projects) meant every step we took was an epic, repetative and costly series of tasks. We learned how to make it work. We had demonstrated the value of a well organized professional mural arts program with metrics. We hosted what was intended to be the first in a series of Community Mural Forums, unaware of the challenges that lay ahead.
"The Mural program changed Tucson..."
But it wasn’t enough.
The vibrant process, curriculum, management or sense of ownership and participatory process that was the TAB hallmark is difficult to recreate. Neighbors were engaged in community design meetings, and approval of designs and many public calls for artists issued.
Critics argue we should let the free market work, the shark tank. Hey it works for advertising - why not murals? This perspective ignores the cultural impact of public art and ability of murals to shape our landscape. These murals are reflective of who we are as a community, it's not just about a pretty postcard, it's an expression of community identity.
When we remove public engagement process we also remove the, voices, history, ownership and pride. This idea of winner take all is framed as "competition" and fosters a monolithic image of our cultural landscape. People see bright beautiful colors and ask what's the problem? Never considering the thousand of voices left out, a peoples history white washed, the streets perfumed for your enjoyment. The critics of Cultural equity and democracy frame the debate in personal terms, avoiding the tough policy and socio-cultural implications of installing works of public art. Those with the most resources, and connections, and least morals, win, and will use their privilege to silence those who dissent.
Towards the end of 2019 the daily hoop jumping ritual became overbearing. It had been 288 months of this, almost to the day. Then our studio at Citizens mysteriously flooded causing a huge amount of damage, coupled with mounting administrative bills. We had to make the difficult decision to pay what bills we could for as long as possible, but essentially fade away. It felt, as one board member described “like a dark cloud was approaching”.
At a time when we needed it the most, TAB was gone. It's important to emphasize our deep impact, in providing artist jobs, redistributing over $350,000. to artist of all ages and walks of life, elevating the status and visibility of a diversity of artists, celebrating a peoples history and advancing the role of the arts in our community. The ripple effects will be felt for years. The community that TAB embodied is a healthy one, with many branches, deep roots, colorful flowers and nutritious fruits. Something new will rise from the ashes.
By March of 2020, that cloud had arrived for the entire planet.