How can students’ ideas about art come to inspire an entire city neighborhood?

These stories are brought to you by a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEA’s Our Town program.

With over 160,000 residents, Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest city, and one that is continuing to expand. Drawing people to its growing economy, Sioux Falls is sometimes referred to as the Ellis Island of the Plains. Users of Meldrum Park reflect this diversity. As part of the Whittier neighborhood, a community of over 5,000 people, the frequently-used park consists of open space, picnic areas and a basketball court. A blank wall on one of the park’s edges, though, had become a persistent target for graffiti tagging.

The Whittier neighborhood is more diverse than Sioux Falls, with a higher proportion of every racial category besides Caucasian. Neighborhood residents are 28.6% African American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic or Asian, and most neighbors proudly identify their area of the city as a “working class neighborhood.” Like many working class areas, the neighborhood is faced with economic and social challenges. 58% of students attending Whittier Middle School, for example, come from low income families that receive free or reduced lunch.

Meldrum Park is open to all of the surrounding residents, but it was in need of repair and basic amenities, such as bike racks. Because it was often unattended, it was also in need of increased activity and investment that would deter those who kept leaving graffiti on the blank concrete wall. Through the Whittier Neighborhood Revitalizations Project, conducted by eighth grade Whittier Middle School students, the community identified the need for an emblem that would speak to the area’s diverse cultural makeup, and that would rally the community in a participatory process.

Whittier Middle School eighth grade teacher Lela Himmerich assigned her students to consider ways of improving the Whittier neighborhood. The class approached the task with much enthusiasm, researching the area and coming up with a set of proposals, one of which was a mural for the wall in Meldrum Park. They presented the idea to city staff and to the Arts Council, which had also been exploring ways the arts could help to serve community development needs. Together, they hoped that a mural would help to give the community an identity reflective of its diversity, and that would combat the problem of graffiti.

The Sioux Falls Arts Council worked closely with the City of Sioux Falls, whose mayor was supportive of the proposal. The Department of Parks and Recreation was also fully committed to the idea, which was critical since the mural would reside on city property. The Arts Council recognized the project would require considerable community involvement, so it reached out to residents and key community leaders such as the president of the Whittier Residents Association, who had become inspired by the role of arts during a visit to San Antonio.

Artists themselves were also an essential part of the larger team. Muralist David Lowenstein worked closely with the community and the students to develop and implement the mural, while filmmakers Nicolas Ward and Amber Hanson tracked the project from the beginning through completion to make a documentary about the project.

The Arts Council implemented a robust community outreach effort, including over 25 face-to-face meetings in churches, community organizations and public events, and communication through phone calls, social media, fliers, and local publications. Using insights gleaned from these discussions, they organized a call-for-artists as a way to attract talent.

Once selected, artist Dave Lowenstein began a 56-day residency to focus on the project. Based in Lawrence, Kansas, Lowenstein was selected because of his extensive work in arts-based community and commitment to community ownership of the design process and product. Assisted by a muralist assistant and apprentice, the process in Sioux Falls included 14 days of community meetings and research, 10 days of design, and 32 days of painting, which included the direct participation of over 250 residents . Lowenstein’s meetings with local residents focused on learning about both their heritage and their hopes for the community so that these elements could be represented in the mural he created.

The mural project, titled “The World Comes to Whittier,” provided a forum in which residents could carry out a lively civic dialogue about their own community. Giving residents the chance to consider how to portray themselves on the mural, Lowenstein was inspired by and portrayed the history and culture of the diverse Whittier community that originated from many nations around the world. It became a rallying point for community members to become very engaged in their own immediate context.

As such, one of the most successful outcomes was a growth of civic participation. “The mural was a vehicle,” explains Nan Kruse Baker, Executive Director of Sioux Falls Arts Council. “The project mobilized the public will of this neighborhood—it gave the neighborhood space to think about itself.” There were other, pragmatic outcomes, too. The environment of the park has been improved and the graffiti has not returned.

The project provided demonstrable evidence for the capacity of art to effect far-reaching change, so the City of Sioux Falls is updating its cultural plan to incorporate more projects of this type. It is also developing a strategic plan for public art. Others outside of government have taken note, too. The project furthered conversations with the United Way on the role of arts in addressing human service needs, and the Sioux Falls Arts Council is continuing the conversation about the transformational impact of the arts throughout the Sioux Falls community.

Organizers report that the project received more attention and enthusiasm than they could have expected, citing positive coverage in the local media and the well-attended community meetings. As Kruse Baker, says, “this notion that the arts play a role in community development has garnered attention.”

The World Comes To Whittier from Queen Alidore on Vimeo.

Inspired by the work in Sioux Falls? Connect with neighbors and work on your own community vision with The Road to a Community Plan or find creative, positive uses for your own empty spaces with the Your Idea Here toolkit, available on Creative Exchange’s Toolkits page!