Art Is Not a Luxury: ‘Parkland Rising’ Mural Project Caught in Political Crossfire

An election mailer sent by Metro Council District 1 candidate Jessica Green this week took her opponent in Tuesday’s primary election, incumbent Attica Scott, to task over a public art project in the Parkland neighborhood, suggesting that art should not be a priority for the low-income Parkland neighborhood.

In the campaign mailer, Green insinuated that the “Parkland Rising” mural of a phoenix emerging from ashes—painted last summer to cover a two-story building on 32nd Street in District 1—was funded at Scott’s behest. Turns out that’s not true, WFPL’s Phillip Bailey reported. But Green maintained that however the public funds are sourced, she doesn’t approve—and a disturbing attitude about the role art can play in communities emerged.

“What I don’t want is a usage of taxpayer dollars that is not going to improve the life of the residents,” Green told Phillip.

Green has a point that the Parkland neighborhood has many needs, and that many residents struggle just to keep their homes properly maintained. But she is wrong when she suggests that the arts don’t improve the lives of the residents of her district. 

Green’s attitude isn’t particularly unique, but it is disappointing to hear from a prospective city leader. Metro Council members amend and approve the city budget, which includes more than $500,000 in allocations for arts projects through the External Agencies Fund.   

Let’s start with what we know—arts-rich experiences lead to higher student achievement and higher civic engagement, so connecting kids with arts projects should be a no-brainer. (And shouldn’t a politician support activity that leads to higher participation in voting and political campaigns?) Citizens need to be engaged and empowered in any community, and the Parkland Rising Mural project involved many community groups, including the Parkland Boys & Girls, the West End School, Youth Build Louisville and Ebenezer Baptist Church. Residents can take even more pride in the Parkland Rising phoenix because so many of their neighbors had a hand in creating it.

The project was coordinated by Producing Art in Neighborhoods Together, or PAINT, which helped connect artist Ramona Dallum Lindsey with the neighborhood groups who worked together to create this piece of public art. Mentorship is key for young artists—who knows how many future arts careers could have been sparked in Parkland kids by working alongside a professional artist?

And let’s talk about public art in Parkland. Recognizing that art in public spaces has a positive effect socially and economically on the entire city (that’s a quote from the city’s public art master plan), Mayor Greg Fischer has made public art and its cultivation a priority, funding a public art administrator position last year and appointing Sarah Lindgren to the post. There are three public art projects in the works for the district, a trend that can only help connect the neighborhood with the city’s art community. District 1 residents shouldn’t have to travel to 21C or the Speed Art Museum to see a beautiful piece of art. And art can be used as evidence of an engaged and vibrant community, which attracts visitors and investment, too. 

Visit Indianapolis and check out the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile pedestrian and cycle path that connects five urban cultural districts. The project designers recognize that art and design should be a part of everyone’s everyday experiences, regardless of socioeconomic status. Louisville developers are using art to break down the storied Ninth Street Divide by helping the Portland neighborhood transition to a hub of arts and creative industries, which are also quietly taking new root in Smoketown, too. Green might be sending the message that District 1 isn’t welcoming to resident artists—current or potential—when they’re looking for affordable, hospitable neighborhoods in which to work and live.

Politics can’t stop people from making and enjoying art—it is that finely ingrained in our consciousness and our basic impulses as human beings—but they can stymie community efforts and deny funding for necessary projects. If elected officials can’t lead in our community’s efforts to expand and encourage the arts, they can at least not stand actively in the way.

It is a mistake to think of art as an amenity, a treat to be reserved for communities that can afford it. Art is not a consumer luxury good, it is our lifeblood. Access to art—through creation and appreciation—is a basic human right. We need it like we need clean air, nutritious food, safe homes and schools and jobs.

Not after—alongside.

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