Art in public spaces plays a distinguishing role in our country’s history and culture. It reflects and reveals our society, enhances meaning in our civic spaces, and adds uniqueness to our communities. … Public art matters because our communities gain cultural, social, and economic value through public art. – Americans for the Arts, 2018
The Rochester (NY) Public Library envisions a city where all residents live rich and fulfilling lives, in part due to their relationships with the library. Public art is one way the library has chosen to engage the Rochester community, both visually and through imagination and voice.
Libraries throughout the city are home to a variety of murals, each developed through a collaborative process involving the artist and the community. We invite you to browse through the images below and learn about some of the mural projects.
The Arnett Branch, located at 310 Arnett Blvd in Rochester’s 19th Ward, has several murals inside and outside the building. Local artist Richmond Futch has been the primary creator of each one, with the most recent work shown on the outside of the building in “book spine” murals.
Futch routinely engages young artists to assist in his work, providing paying jobs and experience that builds resumes. One of those young artists, Chloe Smith, designed an indoor mural for the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County, which features interactive “selfie stations” where people can take photos in front of paintings designed to make them look like they have wings or are holding up a huge stack of books. For the book spine murals at Arnett, Futch and library staff engaged the community to select the titles to be illustrated, creating investment and community pride in the project.
The book spine murals have made the Arnett Library and the surrounding neighborhood a destination for people looking for public art and have brought color and vibrancy on to the Boulevard.
Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County
The Central Library, located at 115 South Avenue in the heart of downtown Rochester, engaged local artist Shawn Dunwoody to create a series of painted panels surrounding the library’s garden. During the library’s strategic planning process, staff and community members were asked to supply a word or phrase that said “library” to them. Dunwoody took these and created the “Words to Live By” panels, which are now a destination point for selfies and other photos. Below you can see a “before” picture showing what a drab and uninspiring view the back of the Bausch & Lomb Library Building presented to our neighbors. The “after” picture illustrates the remarkably different look of that space.
The visual difference on that corner is astounding. The colors and words have added a vibrancy to the area, drawing people in and guiding them into the library. The words continue a nearly 100-year old tradition at the Central Library, which has inspirational and aspirational quotes carved into the exterior walls of both buildings.
In addition, the murals complement an enormous Albert Paley metal sculpture which stands just a few yards away in the center of a roundabout. The Dunwoody paintings and Paley sculpture have created a mini “art park” area between two large buildings, lending a whimsical and colorful air to the landscape.
A signature of Dunwoody’s public artwork is community involvement in the painting. He preps the surfaces and blocks out the designs, then invites community members of all ages and abilities to participate in the painting. Rochester’s Mayor Lovely A. Warren participated in painting these panels, along with dozens of other community members. Many of the people who painted return to check on the condition of the murals and to share the experience with friends and family.
Charlotte Branch Library
The Charlotte Branch, located at 3557 Lake Avenue, has focused their murals on the history of their neighborhood which includes the Port of Rochester, Ontario Beach Park, and the Charlotte Lighthouse. The murals depict life inside the library, underwater and beach scenes to acknowledge the library’s location on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, and smaller panels depicting events in the history of the neighborhood.
Staff member Anne Marie Buonemoni is the artist who created many of these murals. She draws inspiration from the blend of traditional and eclectic in the surrounding neighborhood, which is a destination for people in the region who want to spend a day at the beach.
Frederick Douglass Community Library
The Frederick Douglass Community Library, located at 971 South Avenue, stands on the site of a farm owned by the Douglass family in the 19th century. It was natural to focus murals there on Douglass and on his words.
Rochester’s former Mayor Warren often referred to the Douglass quote depicted in this mural: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Rochester is a city of great opportunity, but also great poverty. We have seen these murals provide hope, joy, and inspiration to community members.
Lincoln Branch Library
The Lincoln Branch, located at 851 Joseph Avenue, recently collaborated with the City of Rochester Department of Recreation and Youth Services RocPaint Division to create a series of painted panels installed inside the library.
These murals focus on reading and imagination and feature culturally authentic images that encourage dreaming. The RocPaint Division is a group of young artists who collaborate on painting projects throughout the city. They gain valuable skills and experience through their work.
Monroe Branch Library
The Monroe Branch, located at 809 Monroe Avenue, was an early adopter of the mural concept. Their mural is located inside the library, covering a wall alongside a stairway connecting the upper floor to the lower children’s area. The artwork depicts a folktale that describes the creation of nearby Pinnacle Hill. It features boldly designed magical creatures in a timeline that shows the development of the land from prehistoric times to the present.
Sully Branch Library
The Sully Branch, located in the Thomas P. Ryan Community Center at 530 Webster Avenue, has two murals – one inside and one outside.
The interior mural, Tree of Hope, was designed and painted by artist Michael McCullough. McCullough grew up in Rochester and, like many young people in the city, experienced loss and trauma. He wanted to give back, and offered to create this mural with input from the young people who regularly visit the library. The leaves on the tree are highly stylized and include the names of the young people who contributed to the concept, as well as names of people lost to violence on the streets, and people who are working to better the community. McCullough returns periodically to add more leaves to the tree.
Outside the Sully Branch is the newest mural project for RPL which incorporates a StoryWalk. This mural was done in collaboration with Common Ground Heath and HealthiKids, which focus on the intersectionality of art, health, and physical activity. The paintings represent healthy foods and incorporate things like hopscotch boards and a 4-square court. The storywalk boards are changed several times a year, encouraging children and families to walk through the site to read the story.
Phillis Wheatley Community Library
The Phillis Wheatley Community Library, located at 33 Dr. Samuel McCree Way, features one of the most popular projects which led the way for the intersectional work on health, art, and education.
Beginning in 2014, the library began a collaboration with the City of Rochester Department of Environmental Services and local gardeners to plant raised-bed gardens, edible plants, and fruit trees on the grounds. These are cared for by library staff, volunteers, and community members, and the food produced is available free to anyone who needs it.
In 2017, the library began a project to better link the indoor and outdoor spaces. During the winter, children and youth in the library worked with a local author through Writers & Books to conceive, write, and illustrate an original story about Rochester. That story was turned into large boards, which became the first outdoor StoryWalk in Rochester.
Local artist Shawn Dunwoody was engaged to create artwork with input from the children that would link the outdoor gardens to the library. Dunwoody worked with the children to identify the most visual parts of the story, then prepped the space, blocked in the images and let the community do the painting. The result was a beautiful space that uplifts the entire neighborhood.
The Wheatley project was done in collaboration with Common Ground Health and HealthiKids and is now used as a site for PlayRocs, an annual event that provides free play at dozens of sites throughout the city. Some of the photos above show young ladies playing outside the library on top of the murals.
While the Rochester Public Library was not the first local organization to embrace the concept of public art through murals, it has been able to use its 11 locations to spread the idea throughout the city. Artist Shawn Dunwoody is the driving force behind “painting the town,” as evident in his most recent accomplishment, Composer’s Crossing. Dunwoody’s work is also described in this article from WXXI, Rochester’s PBS affiliate.
The RPL has found these murals to be relatively low-cost but very high-impact in terms of community engagement. Many of the projects have been financially supported by the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, an organization whose support allows RPL staff to try new and innovative things.
We have been able to use our physical locations to introduce bright, beautiful art into neighborhoods that need a boost. RPL has successfully moved outside our buildings and engaged community members in projects that promote art, health, and education.