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Approval of Public Art Mural Creates Educational Opportunity but also Criticism

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Provided artist's rendering
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The Syracuse Public Art Commission is looking ahead to see how the Downtown Mural Project can be used as a tool to educate the community.  Commission member Anita Welych wants people to be involved in the experience and learn from it.

“You can turn this into a community-based thing that might be relevant to young people and enable them to understand the important background of these people who are featured on the mural.”

Welych and the rest of the commission approved the project this past week.  Members noted it’s unprecedented because a citizen came forward with the idea for a civic mural here in Syracuse, instead of the artist.  That citizen, Frank Malfitano, says this is a unique opportunity where people will be able to watch the mural develop from start to finish.

“A lot of times we just see artwork completed and being hung in a museum somewhere.  This is real, experiential art that’s happening in front of our eyes over a period of time.”

Malfitano agrees that people can interact with the artist while the project is going on.  He also hopes people learn the stories of the basketball icons and trailblazers who not only excelled on the court, but in the social justice arena as well.

“Earl Lloyd was the first African American player in the NBA in the 1950s and he went on to become the first African American champion in the NBA when the Syracuse Nationals defeated the Fort Wayne Pistons.  And his teammate, Dolph Schayes, is one of the top 50 NBA players of all time.  That was a period of Jim Crow segregation.  It was also a period of great anti-Semitism.” 

Add to them Manny Breland who broke the color barrier with Syracuse University Basketball and was the city’s first African American school principal.  And to round out the canvas, Breanna Stewart.

“Breanna is a two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm; she was a four-time NCAA collegiate champion.  And she’s been very active with the Breonna Taylor Black Lives Matter movement, and she’s really taken a very public stance for equal pay for women in sports,” Malfitano added.

The mural is set to be painted on the Monroe Building on East Onondaga Street by nationally-known artist Jonas Never, scheduled to start in July.  Malfitano hopes this can be the first in a series that will become a city attraction.

“I think it’s great for the city; it’s great for these honorees; it’s great for their families.  It’s great for Syracuse pride.  It really kind of puts us alongside all the other great cities of the world doing major street art and murals like this for decades.”

The City Council approved $75,000 from the city budget to be put towards the project, which also has foundation and corporate support.  City funds are expected to come out of federal pandemic stimulus money coming to Syracuse.  But that didn’t pass without some objection.  Since its approval, Congress members John Katko and Claudia Tenney both expressed concern that the mural is not an appropriate use for the recovery funds.  Katko told Syracuse.com that while he likes the mural, it’s “irresponsible” to use money that should aim to help families and businesses.  Tenney comments that the mural was not” targeted COVID relief.” 

Malfitano hopes this first artwork leads to others for the Downtown Mural Project.