Living Walls Atlanta Co-Founder Shares Lessons Learned

October 7, 2016

Atlanta, GA

Living Walls Atlanta, the organization that created 115 murals in five years, is taking a break from painting the town. Co-founder and Executive Director Monica Campana is spending most of 2015 evaluating the organization's past and planning the next steps for this nonprofit that has brought local and international artists together to create murals on the city’s buildings every summer since 2011.

“It is a transitional time for all of us,” said Campana. “We really needed to pause and reflect on the work we have done for the past five years, and we are putting time into our strategic planning for the next five years.”

Campana said the intention is to gather the ideas and dreams for the organization, put them into a visionary plan, and come back at the end of the year with a strategy to create more meaningful projects.

“Living Walls is an organization that created so much in very little time,” she said. “I don’t think that’s how we want to proceed. I don’t think that lets us measure the impact we’re having. So, if we were to create projects that take longer and are more involved, we would be able to measure the impact.”

This strategic planning is one of the things Campana is learning while temporarily living in Philadelphia and studying best practices with the city’s Mural Arts Program, one of the biggest public art nonprofits in the country. During a recent visit to Atlanta, she spoke at Georgia Tech’s Arts@Tech Salon Series — a lunchtime speaker series curated by Travis Denton, the McEver Chair in Poetry, School of Literature, Media, and Communication. The Salon Series features a range of arts-related topics meant to grow interest in the arts among Georgia Tech students in particular, but also among faculty and staff.

‘Art can be scary.’

Living Walls will be taking a hiatus this year from its annual summer conference precisely because it “grew too fast” and still has “a lot to learn,” according to Campana.

Resulting growing pains occurred in 2012 when some Atlanta residents criticized the organization because one of its murals featured a woman in various states of undress. Critics painted over what they found offensive.

In 2014, the city of Atlanta proposed an ordinance to regulate public art on private property. Discussion of the legislation during a city council meeting last fall resulted in a new string of criticism of Living Walls, both by neighborhood citizens and council members. A city-appointed committee, including a representative from Living Walls, is now working to write the legislation.

“Art can be scary,” Campana said. “The great thing is it represents the fears people have, and those fears are justifiable. Some are fearful of gentrification. Some communities want art to represent their story and history.”

To address community concerns, Living Walls is putting more effort into having early conversations with community leaders. Campana said the introduction to the community has to begin before any work starts on art. Living Walls wants to create more dialogue with the communities. But, the organization does not want to create art by consensus.

“We have to understand we are never going to please everyone with art,” she said. “I don’t like some of the murals Living Walls has done,” she laughed.

She is optimistic that the issues between Living Walls and the City of Atlanta will be resolved as they find ways to better communicate with each other. She also is hopeful about the future of Living Walls, including a return of the summer conference in 2016.


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