Walk by some Chicago schools with plain brick or stone buildings, and you’d barely know they’re places meant for kids.
But at others, you’ll see colorful, artistic touches that make them worthy of being a symbol of pride for a community.
Until recently, the city was filled with more of the former than the latter. But Chicago Public Schools buildings have seen a noticeable transformation the past few years as the school system has moved to add to its public art collection and enhance arts education.
The newer art pieces have added to decades-old ones like the “A La Esperanza” mural at Benito Juarez Community Academy, a Pilsen high school that’s filled with murals and mosaics inside and out. A celebration recently was held to mark the 40th anniversary of the mural, which was painted two years after the school opened. To the community, it represents the fight that students and parents put up years ago for CPS to open the school.
At other schools, including McAuliffe Elementary School in Logan Square, several art additions have been made in the past decade and a half.
“Each serves a different purpose — some of them honor our school namesake, some of them help us express our mission and vision, and others help us honor our cultures and traditions,” says Ryan Belville, McAuliffe’s principal.
Art pieces fill McAuliffe at every turn, from the auditorium, to the hallways and even the cafeteria, where murals were painted a few years ago to replace a teal color that had engulfed the entire room.
“It was so terrible, and then now it becomes this inviting space,” Belville says. “It feels welcoming. It’s a great place to learn. Kids love it.”
The more recent projects at McAuliffe have coincided with a 2011 citywide cultural plan that put a high priority on art in schools. A year later, another plan was developed with the help of Ingenuity, an advocacy group for arts education, that laid out what that arts education would look like.
“What has happened in the last decade is that CPS has made arts education a major focus,” says Julia deBettencourt, director of arts education for the city’s schools. “And we’ve seen gains in access to the arts, which certainly gives other arts rich opportunities.”
That shift in focus has led to more partnerships with arts-focused organizations and artists. That’s part of what’s led to more mural and mosaic projects at schools.
CPS now has more than 1,000 partners that provide everything arts-related, from sponsoring field trips to paying for a mural or mosaic project.
The city also pitches in, this year helping fund a $1.5 million grant with CPS and Ingenuity that helped create outdoor art pieces at schools. Over the past three years, that grant has paid for 12 mosaics or murals for schools across the city. One of those projects was a mural and mosaic piece done in 2017 by McAuliffe students — and even some parents — a few blocks away from the school. It was funded through a $15,000 grant from Ingenuity.
Though there’s been a stream of new murals and mosaics at schools, deBettencourt says her department still is working on a way to track the district’s art inventory. For now, CPS doesn’t have a central way to measure how many school buildings have an art component.
And just what does a public art piece bring to a school and its community?
”I think it allows each school and each community to express themselves — their artistic identity, their community, their values — in a very public way,” deBettencourt says. “And that will mean something unique to each school.”
Camille Farrington, a senior research associate and managing director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, says art helps create a welcoming environment for students.
“We know that human beings, in general, respond positively to art and beauty,” says Farrington, who co-authored a report earlier this year on “Arts Education and Social-Emotional Learning Outcomes Among K-12 Students.” “So that holds true for students as well.
“Murals or any kind of attempts to make a school space beautiful, young people recognize that as an investment in them,” Farrington says. “They really notice the upkeep and the way a building is taken care of as being reflective of communities’ investment in them.”
For a mosaic or mural to be installed at a CPS school, an artist might first go ahead and create the piece or might be commissioned for a specific project.
In many cases, students are involved in developing an idea, then helping the artist bring it to life. That’s what happened in the 1970s with the mural at Juarez and a couple years ago at McAuliffe.
“Our schools have significant autonomy in determining projects like that,” deBettencourt says. “And we see schools really partner with their communities, their students and bringing in art partners to make that happen for their individual context.”
According to Farrington: “What we know is the opportunity to engage in making art can be really positive for young people’s development. They may not have that opportunity elsewhere in their school day to really express themselves.”
At CPS’s newest school, Englewood STEM High School, murals were a priority when designing the building on South Normal Avenue, which just opened for this school year.
Principal Conrad Timbers-Ausar says having murals throughout the halls and a couple on the outside of the building has been “very inspiring.”
“One of the things that we were really adamant about was the power of images and how images play in how people see themselves,” Timbers-Ausar says. “This is what Englewood means to our students. Those images have to be very powerful so, as they’re walking through the halls, they see the images that consistently inspire them.”