RiseUP Group Uses Mural Making to Uplift CT Communities
Matt Conway is a community developer and placemaking innovator. He’s also Founder and Executive Director of The RiseUP Group, the parent organization behind CT Murals.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Matt about his work with the organization and the impact the murals are making throughout Connecticut.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background about how RiseUP began doing public murals.
MATT CONWAY: When RiseUP was founded as a youth development organization back in 2012, the youth in our program were committed to community service as part of their enrollment.
In 2015, one of the community service projects the youth wanted to do was to paint a mural on the back of the Goodyear Auto Service building on Market Street in Hartford. The building had been tagged with graffiti. People could see it from the highway when they drove through Hartford and it was the first thing they saw when they came into the city. So, the youth really wanted to liven it up as one of their projects.
The youth in our program came up with the design and then we worked with five street artists to paint the mural. That’s how we first met local artist Corey Pane and we’ve done more than 10 projects with him since.
I think that first mural blew everyone’s expectations away with the amount of detail, the elements of Hartford that were represented, and the overall quality. All the major landmarks in Hartford were incorporated. It’s got Mark Twain riding on the back of a dinosaur and it includes a big “Hartford has it” message. So, it was really cool.
NAN: Did that first mural create momentum and encourage more?
MATT: After that first project, we started talking to some more organizations about partnering on another mural project—and then another mural project and then another mural project. What we realized was, no public art organization in the state could really support artists and the process, be community-oriented, know how to get the funding to fund these projects, and understand the complicated process of approvals. Through our projects, we became almost like the experts in mural making in the Hartford Region—and now state wide.
In 2019, we’ve got a pretty big break with Cirque du Soleil hiring RiseUP to organize the mural on State Street in downtown. That was another high-profile project that brought a lot of attention to street art. And then, in 2020, we really saw it explode. That year, during COVID-19, our organization did more 20 murals.
NAN: Wow! Why do you think that was?
MATT: I think it was driven by a couple of things. One was public art is a powerful platform that can be used to communicate, tell neighborhood stories, draw attention to critical issues, and bring a community together. For example, the Black Lives Matter mural we did at the Swift Factory fell into that category.
But then a lot of other business-driven organizations saw murals as a great way to start attracting people back to downtown and help enhance the restaurants. RiseUP Group painted five 5″ × 5″ murals with five different artists in partnership with the Hartford Business Improvement District. We also worked with the Hartford Chamber of Commerce to paint traffic barriers so restaurants, including Peppercorn’s Grill, could expand their outdoor seating.
We started building more momentum and there became more of a demand in 2020 for public art. I keep telling people, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time for when this started taking off. We’d already done the due diligence with all the legal contracts and the insurance required for these major projects. That streamlined things and helped us get approvals more quickly.
Fast forward to 2021. It’s really expanded statewide. Now we’ve done projects or are working in 20 different communities across the state from Stamford all the way to Putnam. This year alone, we’re on track to complete 58 murals, which will bring our total public art and placemaking count to more than 90 projects. We’re hoping to hit the 100 mark in January or February 2022.
And now schools, towns, developers, and other nonprofits are hiring us. We’ve positioned ourselves as public art as a service because we know how to engage the community. When we go into a community to do a particular mural, we’re doing surveys in that neighborhood before we’re creating the artwork. We’re also doing crowdfunding to raise the money for each project. This past year, we’ve gotten more than a thousand individual donations from people in Connecticut to fund public art. Most of that has been matched dollar-for-dollar by Sustainable CT and their public art fund.
NAN: Is mural making a pivot for The RiseUP Group or is it something that became integrated into your mission?
MATT: It’s become more integrated into our mission. When we started RiseUP, we had an afterschool program called RiseUP University. We struggled to find ongoing funding because it didn’t have a unique avenue that differentiated us from other organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters. We did grassroots funding and tried a few different things, like workforce development training. Nothing was getting a hook from anybody to sustainably fund these projects.
RiseUP has been doing murals since 2015. It just naturally took off and has been integrated in our mission where now RiseUP University has taken an artistic form.
We’re still running our afterschool program. We have one in Stamford and we’re starting one in Manchester in January. The programming includes paid tutors and paid mentors. They’re going to be working together to create a mural as part of this afterschool program.
It’s really exciting. It’s accomplishing all the goals we had for that original RiseUP University model. But now we have that unique spin that can impact the community in a very direct and niche way. It gives the kids in the program voice. And it gives the community itself voice.