Keeper of the Plans

Wichita artists: Free public murals can fuel unhealthy perception

Artist plans series of murals in South Broadway area

Juanta Saunders Jr. is a local artist who is planning the "Broadway Beautification Project" in south Wichita. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)
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Juanta Saunders Jr. is a local artist who is planning the "Broadway Beautification Project" in south Wichita. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

Wichita is a town where, if its people want something, they set about to make it happen themselves.

That’s why a group of artists collaborated for a series of murals in the Douglas Design District in late 2015, united by a desire to beautify the neighborhood.

It’s called Avenue Art Days – an annual event wherein artists volunteer to paint murals on the walls of buildings that business owners have loaned for the project. It’s the reason so many murals exist on Douglas Street now, many of which have become popular photo backdrops for senior pictures and selfies.

Since then, artists have painted the town in murals – it seems every month a new crop of them pops up somewhere.

“It’s launched into this mural mania,” said Janelle King, founder and coordinator of Avenue Art Days. “Everybody, everywhere wants murals.”

But where does money come into the picture? After all, artists have to eat, too.

On Tuesday, Avenue Art Days announced the artists participating in this year’s event would receive a financial stipend for their work for the first time – part of what it’s calling the “Starving Artist Initiative.” The organization raised about $4,500 on Tuesday night, with a portion of that total going directly to artists, King said.

It’s a critical first step in correcting a community perception that has proliferated in town: that public art comes for free.

“I get a phone call or an email every week from people around the city asking, ‘How do I get a free mural?’” King said. “We want to change that tone and that conversation.

“These artists do have value.”

It’s certainly not a new issue – artists, just like musicians and other creative professionals, have long grappled with taking gigs merely “for exposure.”

But with murals en vogue now in Wichita, some artists are being asked for their services for free. That also includes donating artwork for charity auctions – where, on tax returns, artists can only write off the cost of raw materials and not the value of the piece.

“I’ve had people say it’ll be great exposure for me – unfortunately, exposure doesn’t pay rent,” said Johnny Freedom, a popular Wichita-flag muralist. “Exposure doesn’t buy the supplies you need in order to complete a piece.”

As an art professor at Wichita State University, Robert Bubp sees it as part of his job to teach art students, who are often hungry for exposure, to think critically about free opportunities.

Not every volunteer opportunity is bad – Avenue Art Days, for example, is a legitimate platform for local artists to gain widespread attention, he said.

“There is such a thing as trying to take advantage of an opportunity for – as the saying goes – exposure,” Bubp said. “But students and other artists really have to be wary or careful of how much of that sort of thing they do –which are good opportunities.”

Avenue Art Days, which started as a solely volunteer opportunity, has led to paid commissions for artists who participate.

For example, popular muralists Josh Tripoli and Rebekah Lewis were subsequently commissioned for works in Gallery Alley and in a private lot near Intrust Bank Arena. Artists Maggie Gilmore and Delilah Reed were hired for ICT Chalk Talks.

And Freedom, who painted his first-ever mural at Avenue Art Days, recently completed his seventh paid commission – a flag design at the Wichita Country Club pool. Two more are on the way in the coming months, he said.

“For (Avenue Art Days) to spearhead this whole thing ... it’s a great platform for artists,” he said. “It’s been a springboard for my career, for sure.”

Instead of offering a wall for Avenue Art Days, gallerist Reuben Saunders recently commissioned a Lupoli (Tripoli/Lewis) mural on the side of his College Hill building.

The key to commissioned work, according to Saunders: people have to perceive that local art has value.

“I’ve spent 39 years promoting the fact that locally and regionally produced art is outstanding and worth collecting,” Saunders said. “It has both intrinsic and real value, and it’s up to both us and the artist to sell that to the public.”

King, the founder of Avenue Art Days, knows the struggle.

Ever since Avenue Art Days was founded, it’s battled the perception that these murals are akin to graffiti.

“That conversation has just changed so dramatically,” she said of public perception of murals. “It was, initially, ‘Are you crazy? You want to do what on my walls? You want permission to graffiti?’

“Nobody really quite got it.”

Ultimately, though, artists agree that the genesis for Wichita’s mural renaissance was Avenue Art Days.

“I think Avenue Art Days has exactly the right approach and understanding that you do have to build something from somewhere,” Bubp said. “Get people to realize that these things are an asset, not a negative.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

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