Introducing Paul Farber, Mural Arts’ First Scholar-in-Residence

Paul Farber at City Hall

Paul Farber at City Hall

This spring, we’ve decided to take a fresh look at how Mural Arts can better engage with academia and contribute to scholarship related to our work. To help us think about these topics, we have brought in Paul Farber, a Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Haverford College and a co-curator of Monument Lab, as our first scholar-in-residence. We spoke with Farber about what this opportunity means, and why it’s an important step for him and for Mural Arts.

Briefly, how would you describe your new role at Mural Arts?

I will explore ways that researchers may interact with the organization's body of work. This includes the evolving nature of mural making, extensive community research practices, and civic engagement projects throughout Philadelphia. I am also collaborating on programming related to the social practice symposium with Moore College of Art & Design this summer and Open Source next fall.

You've studied Mural Arts, at least informally, for a while now. What attracted you to Mural Arts in the first place, and why the continued fascination?

I am a Mount Airy native and currently teach as a Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Haverford College. I grew up understanding this city as a muraled space, both aesthetically and ideologically, the latter referring to the groundbreaking methods of replacing punitive practices levied against graffiti artists with creative opportunities. This has long fascinated and inspired me, and taught me important lessons about how to understand the ways we may strive for collectivity, interactivity, and possibility in our city. When I returned to Philadelphia after finishing my PhD at the University of Michigan in American Culture, where I wrote my dissertation on the cultural history of the Berlin Wall, I looked back to Mural Arts in order to grasp this city's creative evolutions and critical discourses. As a professor, I was further prompted by my students who pursued projects related to murals as complex sites of memory around the city. I credit an extremely generative conversation with muralist Shira Walinsky at the Southeast by Southeast neighborhood hub two years ago as pivotal to my current understanding of Mural Arts. This has grown into an impactful and ongoing dialogue, resulting in shared projects between our students and new ways of thinking about that vital space. Southeast by Southeast is a key place for me and many others to historicize and theorize contemporary Philadelphia.

What do you hope to gain from your time as our scholar-in-residence?

In my practice as a scholar, I seek to understand artists as knowledge producers by closely reading across their produced public works and archives. My research outcomes are often profoundly shaped by sustained dialogue with artists and their communities of support. I hope to pursue the same sort of methods with Mural Arts as its first scholar-in-residence. My goal in this position is to reflect on the organization from the standpoint of its artistic practices and knowledge production. I'm intrigued by the interdisciplinary methods already employed by the organization’s multiple practitioners, and by the opportunity to imagine what sorts of engagements are possible for other scholars. I am invested in imagining what a Mural Arts "archive" could look like both in a contemporary moment and decades from now.

Why is it important for Mural Arts, and other arts organizations, to open their doors to academics? Why should we be studied or promote the academic study of public art?

I have found Mural Arts to be an intellectually generous organization, willing to open conversations and collaborative possibilities with scholars around the city of different ranks and representing a wide body of disciplinary fields. This is the case for individuals without any direct connections to specific muraled projects per se, but interested more in the issues driving their creation—including discourses on mass incarceration, immigration, public health, education, and grassroots approaches to civic investment. Mural Arts' body of work is not only open to interpretation across academic spheres, but is importantly generated and fueled by conversations we are jointly having about the economic, social, and political life of our city. Their own research methods and applied practices are to be taken seriously. But their generosity, I believe, can also be met by further mutuality from scholars. It is essential we look closely at the murals that layer Philadelphia's public spaces while also digging deeper to weigh layers of signification surrounding the profound circulation of ideas, networks of affiliation, civic negotiations, and urban research carried out by the organization.

Lucia Thomé and Billy Dufala from RAIR constructing Terry Atkins' sculpture at Monument Lab.

Lucia Thomé and Billy Dufala from RAIR constructing Terry Atkins' sculpture at Monument Lab.

Outside of this position, what are you working on at the moment?

I teach writing courses on urban culture and history at Haverford College. This spring from May 15 to June 7, I'm co-curating Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia at City Hall. This is a Pew Center for Arts & Heritage–funded project based at the Penn Institute for Urban Research, and Mural Arts is one of our key partners. Along with co-curators Ken Lum and Will Brown, we are hoping to stage a conversation about our city's 21st-century core values and future visions by asking Philadelphians a central question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? We will be building a prototype monument by the late Terry Adkins about the history of educational innovation and loss at City Hall, hearing proposals from Philadelphia artists like Zoe Strauss and WE THE WEEDS for speculative monuments, and collecting imaginative responses from residents to consider the ways our pasts are connected to our emerging futures as a city.

The Scholar-in-Residence position is funded by Ford Foundation