Respect for Rochester: Why public art is essential in any destination
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
As a child, I grew up in a household that celebrated Black art. Each room in our house had paintings that told multiple black stories. I had the privilege of being exposed to Black artists like Ernie Barnes, Annie Lee
and Jacob Lawrence early— Black art was standard. To add icing on top of a very beautifully created black art cake, my mother and godmother had a Black art business entitled Black stuff 2
where they sold Black art throughout California.
Most Black people don’t have the same rich black art experience. Our public spaces like schools, hospitals, museums and even airports have little to no art that represents who we are as a people. It is rare to see art that highlights our stories, or showcases our struggles and triumphs. But Rochester, New York, as a destination is changing that narrative through public
Studies show that having public art in your destination provides economic benefits, including new jobs and increased tourism. Murals by themselves have a strong marketing focus for destinations and thats why we've seen and increase in walking tours around the globe. Hiring a diverse group of artist in your destination to use city buildings and walls as their canvas and a place to express themselves speaks volumes. Mitchell Reardon calls this “community fingerprints”—spaces that make people feel represented, foster community ties, and give people a sense of ownership and belonging in their neighborhoods.
So if it does that to people who live in a destination, imagine the impact it has on those visiting. 70% of Black travelers book vacations in places they see themselves reflected. When we hear that we think that means the current population and social media images, but that means in public art spaces too.
I never noticed how many art spaces lack diversity until I visited Rochester . I saw myself
represented in every corner of the city. Rochester uses the hashtag #PublicArtMatters and #walltherapy and I can confidently say , Public art definitely matters, and has changed my opinion of the destination.
Giving artists space to express their craft is extremely important. If you say you are a diverse destination the art that’s displayed throughout your city should be a testament to that. As a community we can’t understand each other if there aren’t safe spaces for us to have dialogue and share diverse opinions and different perspectives.
I experienced black art through a variety of ways including murals and statues. Since Rochester is the chosen home of Frederick Douglass you see him everywhere. When I noticed the ninth statue I stopped keeping count. It was powerful to see a man with my hair, and my features to be celebrated in that way, with many of these beautiful displays also including his wife.
Historically Black women rarely get credit for the endurance, faith and support they’ve given Black men throughout the centuries to overcome. But Anna Douglass has a school named after
her and is depicted through a mural.
I adored visiting the Memorial Art Gallery, a gallery known for it’s comprehensive and well- balanced collection, I didn’t expect it to be so progressive. There were so many pieces that stood out to me. The first was a motion picture perspective of the star-spangled banner being played prior to the game. You see some people kneeling, some locking arms with one another, and others with their hands across their chest. All bold statements, and all correct, it shows we can have different opinions and still be on the same team. Another piece I loved was a Harriet Tubman statue.
I visited Auburn prior to Rochester, where Harriet Tubman is immortalized throughout the town, I
was a complete fan girl and anything I saw that celebrated her made me proud. The statue
depicted her carrying hundreds of individuals in her dress, leading them to freedom. You could
see it, was heavy, you could see a lot of people depended on her through their faces, but with
her hand on her satchel she persisted.
We were lucky to be guided on a public art tour by Quajay Donnell. A Public Art expert and photographer. He took us to so many locations that displayed Black art that we would’ve never known existed. It depicted our heroes, everyday life and the ongoing quest to be heard and accepted.
I was impressed with the amount of knowledge he had, and my favorite piece by far was the John Lewis Mural. I stalked Quayjay's Instagram after and adored the way he shows up for the
artist community. A lot of murals we found on our own were on his page as he supported the artists and the process. There is a mural on King street that
stopped me dead in my tracks.
It’s of a young black woman sitting and looking. It’s beautiful and vibrant, and through his page I learned that the muralist’s name is Brittany Williams. That image will forever be embedded in my head, and I hope more are able to experience it.
Every destination should be committed to promoting public art. It is a major factor of people of color feeling connected to a place through representation and amplification of their stories. Rochester feels good to my spirit, and this was one of the major reasons. I’d love to see other destinations follow suit because art indeed inspires change.