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Jennifer Roth

Chicago’s Collaborative Community Murals: 1967-2003

           The contemporary mural movement in Chicago redefined “public” and “art” in its innovative approaches to public art making. Fully integrated for the first time, the public became a part of the art making, and art became very much a part of public life. Notable differences between early and later phases of the movement can be attributed to different political and social climates. But despite certain differences there remains today a commitment to community involvement and a confidence in public art as a vehicle for community betterment.

         A close examination of two Chicago collaborative murals, Universal/Rip-Off Alley (1970/74) and Urban World at the Crossroads (1997), illustrates a transformation in mural making, yet highlights the unchanging objectives, motivations, and successes of the movement. Both Rip Off and Urban World are examples of community collaborations in minority neighborhoods. Formal similarities between the murals reflect not only similar community audiences, but also a successful approach to community design. Both murals assess the current conditions of the community while referring to a heritage shared by community members. Most importantly, the muralists share idealistic intentions for community identification and unification. They are motivated by the potential for art to bring about social change, and they succeed in creating art, communities, and community space.

         The differences in the two murals confirm an evolution in community art. Dissimilar themes, imagery, and overall tone suggest attempts to appeal to different audiences in different eras. The transformation highlighted by the two murals also reflects the building upon and refining of the collaborative community art tradition. Muralists today have the opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of past projects. Finally, while both murals reflect community collaboration, the collaborative processes differ with respect to the participants (artists, community organizations, municipal organizations, members of the community) and their roles in the collaborations.

         The quality of work created out of collaboration is often underestimated. Where do we assign value regarding collaborative murals and has this changed over time? Few murals today make art history textbooks. While some projects are cited in art magazines, more are cited in community-centered publications—indicating a much greater value placed on the community collaborative processes rather than the art itself. Community mural art as art needs to be reconsidered and re-evaluated in both social and artistic contexts as well as the uncertain space between.



       Jennifer Roth completed her undergraduate art history degree at the University of Michigan. She is interested in public and community arts and works part-time with the Chicago Public Art Group.


Thesis Advisor: Kymberly Pinder, Associate Professor, Director, MAAH Program; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Thesis Reader: Robert Loescher, Professor and Goldabelle Macomb Finn Distinguished Chair in Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Director, BFA with Emphasis in Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Second Reader: Rebecca Keller, Adjunct Assistant Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Art Education



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