The Porch Light Program takes the transformative power of art to the streets

The Porch Light Program is a program of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts, a citywide transformative arts project that has been ongoing for 30 years. Porch Light takes the idea of the transformative power of art and turns it into action, ultimately using it as a catalyst for change.

The Mural Arts Program has three departments that focus on collaborative arts projects with other groups of people. There is an art education program that works with youth, a restorative justice program that works with those incarcerated, and Porch Light, which works with people receiving services from mental health agencies.

“This is participatory public art [that we] apply to the field of behavioral health,” says Sara Ansell, Porch Light Program Director. The initiative is designed to aid in people’s recovery, but also to “de-stigmatize issues around behavioral health.”

Ansell’s background is in social services. She has a master’s degree in social work and a master’s in social policy from the University of Pennsylvania. She was working in health policy but was most interested in doing work on the ground level and looking at how our physical environment impacts our health.

“I wanted to work in program implementation that addressed that question,” she says. “When I learned about this opportunity at Mural Arts, none of these projects had been pulled together as a cohesive program. My job is to pull together all these disparate projects that we really believe in. My work has been to really define the Porch Light Program as the intersection of public health and public art.”

Porch Light assists those seeking treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues in developing the skills they need to enhance their recovery. The program embeds public artists in behavioral health and social service agencies. The artists are not trained as clinicians or art therapists at all; they are first and foremost public artists who deeply believe in collaboration.

Ansell states, “Because this work is public we hope it will work within the community to promote community connectiveness, but we also hope it impacts public and population health and increase awareness around public health.”

The artists work together with the participants to come up with a design for their murals. “The artist has to be really skilled,” says Ansell. “They have to ask the right questions. We want their design to be about them and the community, not just them.” The work they’re doing is intended for the broader community.

The Porch Light Program is currently being studied by the Yale School of Medicine, which seeks to understand what the program’s impact actually is with the individuals they work with and with the broader community. “This has been a rigorous assessment of public art on our public health,” Ansell says. “[We’re trying to] implement a program that is measureable. Our job is to support the artists and let them flourish, but also to superimpose a system for an outside [agency] to assess the work that we’re doing.”

Another job of Porch Light is to partner with agencies that will support the artists in their work. “Many have never hosted a public art therapy program before,” says Ansell. “[One question we ask is] what does it take [for them to] see the value of this? [There is a] culture shift [that needs to happen for these agencies] to see this as another part of a person’s recovery. We do a lot of training with the staff before the artists even come in, and now we have selection criteria for partner sites.”

Ansell says the partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) is groundbreaking. “They are literally investing dollars in work they truly believe is important, this de-stigmatizing work as enhancing healing and recovery. Not many cities can say a city agency is investing in public health and in something as [unorthodox] as public art.”