This report describes the ecology and economy of the mural painting ecosystem in Detroit. It includes six case studies of mural painting projects in the city and concludes with a SWOT analysis of the ecosystem. It recognizes, but does not investigate, the economic, social, and ethical issues raised by the relationship between public art and the property market.
1.0 Different roles in the mural painting ecosystem
Artists – In the six projects we examined there were approximately 100 participating Detroit artists of whom approximately 40-50 are “go to” artists with established portfolios and track records. Because of their scale, mural paintings tend to be collaborative, hence providing apprenticeship opportunities for younger artists.
Funders – The funding base for mural painting is diverse and includes Foundations (typically for festivals and larger projects), individual funders (for commissions), corporations who are incentivized to raise property values (e.g., Rocket), corporations whose brand identity gains by association with murals (e.g., Foot Locker), municipalities (for blight remediation and cultural capital building), tri-county property owners (through the DIA millage), and crowdfunding.
Project management – Project managers are typically employed for festivals and larger projects and include 1XRun, BLKOUT Walls, City Walls (City of Detroit) + various subcontractors. The DIA manages its public art project internally.
Community – community engagement is typically considered essential for successful mural painting and public art. Almost all of the projects considered in this report consulted with the community to some degree.
2.0 Estimated Size of the Economy
Viranel Clerard from the Detroit Mural Project (who has diligently cataloged murals in the city of Detroit from 2015 onwards) estimates that the number of new, legal and non-commercial murals per year is “120 per year and rising.”
Assuming 50% contingency (to include mural painted in the suburbs and those Clerard missed in Detroit), and an average of $15k/mural (which is a rule of thumb mentioned by several people) we estimate the total size of the mural painting economy in Metropolitan Detroit as $2.7M/year.
In comparison to the massive visual exposure and likely commercial impact (through the property market) of public art this number seems to indicate that the cost to funders is often low in comparison to the benefits they accrue.
3.0 Pull through revenue and downstream financial effects from the mural painting ecosystem
Undoubtedly the biggest downstream financial effect of public art is on property values. It is hard to establish a definitive relationship between mural painting and property values, however several observers noted that in general public art is considered a leading indicator of market confidence and rising property values. It is worth noting that the Rocket Community Fund, which funds the Small Business Mural project, is a part of a for-profit organization whose business is closely tied to the Detroit property market. This indicates that they consider the funding of public art to be a valid business expense rather than a philanthropic act.
Several successful mural artists mentioned the synergy between their studio and public art practices. Murals have large audiences and can promote gallery sales. Also, a few good mural commissions can pay the bills and allow greater studio time.
There is a small secondary business of prints of murals and related images, through self-publishing and 1XRun’s publishing operation
There are a couple of small businesses offering mural tours.
4.0 Case Studies of Mural Projects – overview
This study considers six mural projects, with data collated in November 2021. Note that all of these projects are predominantly mural-based, but in quantifying the size of the projects, we also counted 3-d and non-mural 2-d public art when estimated the # of “walls.”
4.1 Case Studies of Mural projects, Strengths and Weaknesses
5.0 SWOT Analysis of Overall Mural Painting Ecosystem
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