Norman, Oklahoma, is a thriving small city that loves its murals. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1990s, Norman saw many of its downtown businesses relocating to strip malls near the highway, leaving the town center to decay. Then in 2006, a tattoo parlor moved in and announced its presence with “Lady with the Panther,” an eye-catching depiction of a woman with long, curly, red hair and a black panther spanning several stories on the side of its electric blue building.
It set the tone for what the downtown would become, with new shops and businesses gradually moving into empty retail spaces, many installing murals of their own, including Norman’s now iconic “Red Tail Hawk.”
In one alley, garage doors and dumpsters have been colorfully painted by local artists, creating an unlikely urban art destination. And the town’s “Second Friday Art Walk” turns local businesses into temporary galleries displaying works by local artists.
“It was amazing to watch the transformation of older areas because of art,” says Tory Tedder-Loffland, a Norman native and education outreach and programs director for Oklahoma Electric Cooperative. “Visitors were attracted to the colorful, funky vibe and vitality of the town center. It was a catalyst for other businesses to move in.”
OEC CEO Patrick Grace, who serves on the Norman Economic Development Council, says he believes in the “value of public art in increasing the quality of life in Norman.” The co-op has donated funds and provided volunteers for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore mural and also sponsors Public Art is smART, a Norman Arts Council program that ties history, engineering, climate and more with public art projects.
Tedder-Loffland says murals and other public art alone can’t restore a struggling community, but they are a proven way to quickly and inexpensively jumpstart a transformation. The new vibe in Norman was enough for her and her husband to sell their suburban home and move downtown.
Public art and placemaking
Scott Bialick, senior manager for member engagement and strategic partnerships with Touchstone Energy® Cooperative, works with electric co-ops on economic development issues. In 2020, he helped lead Touchstone Energy’s “Co-op Community Initiative” project alongside a team from HGTV’s “Home Town” that helped Pageland, South Carolina-based Lynches River Electric Cooperative with a local revitalization effort.
That ambitious project kicked off with the design and installation of a colorful “Greetings from Pageland” mural on the side of a building in the town square. Like other rural murals, it depicts distinct aspects of the town’s history and culture, including the town clock and that region’s signature crop, watermelons.
“Murals are the low-hanging fruit of economic development,” Bialick says. “They’re conversation starters. Once you get a mural designed and installed, it leads to other discussions about what else is possible.”
Such public art programs, Bialick says, are a central tenet of the “placemaking” movement, an economic development philosophy that taps into a community’s unique natural, cultural and historical offerings to create a place that is attractive to new residents and visitors.
Lorie Vincent, president of Acceleration by Design and founder of the Stand Up Rural America summit, says a high-quality, well-thought-out mural can have an outsized impact on development.
“If a mural is an attention-getter, it becomes an attraction, and the spill-over impacts surrounding businesses,” she says. “When done well, murals tell a town’s unique story and reflect the local culture, creating a sense of pride and shared history.”
She says these installations can fill a cultural gap for small towns.
“Public art is a way to bring art and culture to rural towns,” Vincent says. “These areas often don’t have the resources for galleries or museums, and murals are a great way to bridge this divide.”
Flint Energies’ “Rural Murals” program is spurring transformations in its Georgia territory, and its success is attracting regional attention. To date, the co-op has sponsored 10 mural programs in nearby towns, with more planned in 2024.
Marian McLemore, Flint’s vice president of cooperative communications and an artist herself, created the program in 2019. It offers grants for towns to create murals and requires recipients to invest a modest amount of their own money into the mural project so they have “skin in the game.”
“Art is for everyone,” says McLemore. “It shouldn’t just be kept in a metropolitan city.”
White River Valley Electric Cooperative’s popular “Plugged-In” grants program has supported several public arts projects in its territory in and around Branson, Missouri. The criteria they consider for grants include whether the funds will enhance the quality of life for the community; how the project will impact the business environment; and whether it will improve the appearance of the area.
“Beautification projects make something visually appealing, but they also help create memories,” says Cassie Cunningham, the co-op’s vice president and chief growth officer. “Murals are a landmark for residents and an attraction for visitors, making them solid economic drivers.”
McLemore says the most basic function of murals is to camouflage substandard facades and take away the impression of blight. At their best, they have the power to enliven a community.
“It prompts people to wonder what else can be done if we put forth a little effort,” she says. “It’s as if a veil has been lifted, and they see what the town can be. Just a little bit of paint can spark the imagination.”