The site of the Barnes Foundation on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway was once the Youth Study Center, a juvenile detention facility widely seen as depressing both architecturally and functionally.
“It was bleak and gray,” said Jane Golden, director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Fifteen years ago, she used to run art programs inside the center.
“All the time, I felt my heart was breaking on behalf of the kids,” she said. “I saw great talent and ability.”
It was where Russell Craig first entered the criminal justice system, a system he would be in and out of for the better part of the next dozen years. His most recent and — knock wood — last stretch was in the State Correctional Institution at Graterford for a drug conviction.
While in prison, Craig turned his life around by focusing on making art. Released in 2013, he is now a rising artist widely recognized for his provocative portraiture. He has a solo show opening this weekend at the Magic Gardens on South Street.
On Tuesday he found himself back where he started, at the site of the old Youth Study Center.
“It’s more than me being here,” said Craig, inside the Barnes Foundation’s former visitors center that’s now an art studio. “That whole era of my life, for many years, was just a whole different thing than this. It’s really overwhelming.”
Both Craig and this piece of real estate have changed dramatically in the last decade. The Youth Study Center was torn down to make way for a celebrated building housing one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of modern and impressionist art.
For the next two years, the Barnes Foundation will give up its small, detached visitors center to the Mural Arts program to use as a studio for public art projects.
‘Creativity is everywhere’
Since January, recently released artists in Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program have been using the space to make “Proclamations,” a modular mural of interlocking pieces of clear acrylic — in the style of Ray Eames’ “House of Cards” — each painted with an expression of being inside and out of prison. The piece, supported by the Philadelphia Presbytery, will tour area Presbyterian churches.
Passers-by have peered in to see what the artists are doing. This Sunday, the artists will invite the public inside for an open house.
“In our society, we have become really good at judging and dividing up. Who has resources, who doesn’t? Who can do this, who can’t?” said Golden. “We’re trying to say talent is everywhere. Creativity is everywhere.”
Next month, the space will be used by a visiting artist to make a public art project about prominent Philadelphia women. Until the end of 2019, the space will be used for education, public engagement, and artist residencies.
The building was originally the Barnes ticket office. Since opening in 2012, the Barnes changed the way it sells tickets and no longer needs that building, which is largely made of glass and is visible to the street.
Shelley Bernstein, the Barnes deputy director of audience engagement, said giving the building over to Mural Arts is a natural fit.
“Our strategic plan at the Barnes right now is a lot about how we become more equitable within the city. How we become an access point,” she said. “I looked around, and Mural Arts is clearly doing impactful work everywhere.”
The Barnes will host an exhibition of work created through Mural Arts at another arts institution. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has let the artists in the Restorative Justice program use its print studio. In April, work created there will be displayed at the Barnes as “Marks of Change.”