Spotlight on: Museum of Public Art

Check out a photo gallery of some of the museum’s work in Old South Baton Rouge:

Art goes viral in Old South Baton Rouge thanks to international artists

People see photos of bright, intense murals and want to know how to find them. Often, those people are on the other side of the world. And they are commenting about photos they saw on Facebook of a rundown building in Baton Rouge.

The social media presence of Kevin Harris’ Museum of Public Art should make it the envy of most small non-profits and businesses anywhere. As of early October, it had nearly 200,000 likes on Facebook and a growing tally of Instagram followers. That reach is thanks to the images of vibrant murals the museum commissioned in Old South Baton Rouge—images that have gone viral and are being shared by some of the top art blogs around the globe.

Many of the online fans may be unfamiliar with Baton Rouge, but they know good art, and Harris has brought in some of the world’s top muralists and graffiti artists to beautify Old South Baton Rouge and its environs, one wall at a time.

It started on a sweltering weekend in August 2012, on the side of the old Habitat Imports building on 14th Street off Government Street. Harris, a local orthodontist, commissioned three graffiti artists from New York City—James Top, Part-One and King Bee—for this inaugural wall, which paid homage to the subway graffiti of their hometown.

Editor’s note: This story appeared in 225‘s November issue as part of a series of stories focusing on arts-based initiatives in Old South Baton Rouge. Read more here.

“We’re trying to let people know that the train has left the station,” Harris said that day, while discussing bigger plans for exhibits from visiting graffiti artists and art workshops for local children.

The mural project quickly spread deeper into Old South Baton Rouge. The roster of artists who have left their stamp over the last two years has grown to include renowned artists from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere who have participated in similar urban art projects across the world but had never been to south Louisiana.

In most cases, Harris paid their travel and operating expenses.

“What he’s managed to do has changed the way people see the community, including the people in it,” says the Arts Council’s Eric Holowacz. “For me, it is the most extraordinary new arts activity going on, not just in Old South Baton Rouge—it could be in the whole region.”

Kevin Harris, center, talks to local budding graffiti artist Kevin Eli as Kevin Ross applies the vinyl portion of the first mural the museum commissioned in August 2012. Photo by Erin Parker Skinner
Kevin Harris, center, talks to local budding graffiti artist Kevin Eli as Kevin Ross applies the vinyl portion of the first mural the museum commissioned in August 2012. Photo by Erin Parker Skinner

Harris declined to speak on record about the recent clashes with the Arts Council (his museum signed the community’s cease and desist letter, in which the alleged use of museum images for grant applications without permission was cited as a sign of bad faith). However, he previously spoke to 225 about the museum and its goal of helping to revitalize the neighborhood.

“[The residents] like the idea of someone taking an interest in their community,” he told us as the project began.

He has admitted that not everyone in the neighborhood likes the murals. It can no doubt make a resident uncomfortable to see unfamiliar faces driving by slowly to gawk at or take pictures of their colorful houses or buildings.

But he’s encountered enough residents and property owners who are willing to let the artists use their walls as a blank canvas. Unlike other murals that already exist in the neighborhood—like Wayne Jones’ realistic depictions of African American struggles—the museum’s visiting artists bring a worldly, edgy and in-your-face aesthetic. While some might argue this brand of street art is glorifying graffiti and vandalism, none of the murals has been defaced or painted over—except when a new artist is involved.

In 2012, Harris acquired the building cater-corner from the Lincoln Theater. It’s just four brick walls with no roof, but it is a hive of artistic activity. Inside and outside, artists have painted over or added to each other’s work time and again. “Nothing here is permanent,” Harris told us then. “If you come by here six months from now, you are going to see something new.”

That goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of the artists involved. The works aren’t meant to be permanent—some of these buildings might come down eventually—but just the achievement of turning eyes toward a neglected neighborhood has a long-lasting impact.