Main Street Matters: Spotlight on Harlingen’s Murals

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Community Development

By Cheryl LaBerge, Downtown Manager, City of Harlingen

With more than 20 murals downtown and many others citywide, murals have become a top tourist attraction for Harlingen. The Harlingen Downtown District (Harlingen Main Street Program) has worked with partners to preserve, create, and promote murals since the 1980s. Mural maps, guides, and walking tours give locals and visitors yet another reason to spend time and, hopefully, money in restaurants, shops, and service businesses.

Murals help generate interest in and support for historic preservation, besides adding visual interest to plain walls and deterring graffiti. The colorful, larger-than-life-size format attracts attention. Downtown Harlingen deliberately commissions mural artists to tell stories and to celebrate aspects of the community’s history and culture.

A good example is Downtown Harlingen: Where the Past is Present, a mural completed in March, with funding in part from the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Heritage Trails Program. It portrays the concept of adaptive reuse by showing seven repurposed downtown buildings as they looked previously, when open as a bank, hardware store, dress shop, post office, hotel, mortuary, and movie theatre. The mural (which is approximately 10 feet x 112 feet) was painted in full color by artist Brett Oberthaler from historic black-and-white photographs.

Oberthaler’s beautiful images make people notice and appreciate buildings they pass by every day and have taken for granted. Several Harlingen residents have commented that this new mural is their favorite because it prompts memories of “the way Harlingen used to be.” In the wake of publicity about the mural, more people are posting historic photos and old postcard images of Harlingen buildings on Facebook. Former residents are inquiring about properties and businesses they remember, and newcomers are asking what the buildings they work in used to be.

Downtown Harlingen also strives to preserve historic murals for future generations to enjoy. Three spectacular murals painted on canvas by the late Normah Knight had decorated walls inside Harlingen businesses for decades. In the 1980s, The Story of Bread (1948), the Development of the Rio Grande Valley (1951), and the Development of the Bottling Industry (1954), were carefully removed from the now-defunct bakery, bank, and bottling plant where they hung and moved downtown, where they remain on public view.

In 2010, as part of Harlingen’s centennial celebration, a monumental mosaic mural was installed downtown entitled The History of Mexico and Mankind. This priceless work of art, consisting of 905 handcrafted tiles, was created in 1975 by the late Raúl Esparza Sanchez of Torreón, Coahuila (Mexico), for the California Museum of Science and Industry. Each of the nine panels depicts an aspect of Mexican legend and lore. How the mural was acquired and reassembled in downtown Harlingen is a story in and of itself, involving many partners, chutzpah, and determination.

There is much to consider if you are thinking about a mural program to complement your historic preservation efforts. The following sections are tips derived from years of experience.

Goals

Be clear about what you want to accomplish with your mural program. Set goals, put them on paper, and stick with them. In 2003, when the Harlingen Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown District, Historical Preservation Society, and Keep Harlingen Beautiful joined together to create new murals, these partners set goals that addressed each organization’s respective needs. Ten years later, the partners have changed, but the goals endure:

  1. to create more public artworks that attract visitors to Harlingen and entice them to spend more time exploring the city
  2. to revitalize downtown Harlingen and entice new merchants and more shoppers to the area
  3. to help preserve the history and heritage of the community
  4. to beautify the city and add to the quality of life of citizens and visitors

The goal is not just to make walls pretty. Nor is it to make political statements, or install works that shock or offend. Partner with organizations and individuals when goals align; wish them well when they don’t.

Subject Matter

Make a list of stories to tell about your community. Think about documenting key events, such as downtown during World War II or how people pulled together after a devastating hurricane or flood. The Harlingen mural entitled The Early Days (Jermain Steed, 2001) celebrates the coming of the railroad. Consider mural tributes to key individuals, organizations, prominent business people, or families. The mural, A Tribute to Bill Haley and His Comets (John Aretakis, 2003), memorializes Harlingen’s most famous resident, the legendary “Grandfather of Rock ‘n Roll.” Showcase your top agricultural products, sporting traditions like fishing, birding, hunting, or team sports. Tap into nostalgia with murals based on old photographs and postcards.

Locations

Walk and drive around the downtown district to identify walls where murals might be installed. Take pictures, measure, and note whether the walls are brick, block, concrete, stucco, or frame. Consider traffic patterns and walking tour routes. Talk with property and business owners to determine who is receptive to having murals on their buildings and on what topics.

Materials

Some Harlingen murals have been painted on Medium Density Overlay (MDO) boards and affixed to buildings, rather than having artists paint directly on walls. This has been done for various reasons: to avoid damaging brick that had not been painted previously; to ensure that a work Downtown Harlingen owned could be removed from a building (private property) if it sold; and, to allow an artist to work indoors and at ground level rather than on a scaffold in the hot South Texas sun.

While artworks won’t last forever in the elements, be proactive in protecting them. An automotive clear coat (or two or three) is applied on the completed murals in Harlingen to retard ultraviolet rays. Flashing is installed along the top of the murals on MDO boards to prevent rain, mold, and mildew behind.

Money

If murals are a priority, allocate money in your budget for them. Engage partners who might help with cash or in-kind contributions. Write grants if you have time to do so, and the ability to manage the recordkeeping and reporting the grant agency will require. Develop a budget that is realistic and appropriate for the size of your project and your community.

No artist Downtown Harlingen ever hired was paid what they really should have been paid, if their time and talent is considered. But they understand the value in having a work on display downtown. It helps give artists credibility, build their portfolios, and gain other commissions. Do what you can to help them, acknowledge them, and promote them. Provide referrals when people call looking for mural artists for their projects.

Make clear how much money you have for the artist fee and what else your organization is able to provide, such as work space, a paint budget, or MDO boards. If painting directly on a wall, who will be responsible for washing and priming it? Who will provide scaffolding and lighting? Where will the artist get electricity, if needed, and clean and store materials overnight? If an artist is willing to work within the stated parameters, fine. If not, so be it. Some mural artists price their services by the square foot. Those you likely can’t afford, especially if creating large works of 800–2,000 square feet or more.

Artists

Working with artists can be fun and interesting; it also can be a challenge. As a project manager you likely are left-brained, organized, and detail-oriented. Many artists are the opposite. Even though there is an agreement on paper that clearly states your organization is the client, the project will be done to your satisfaction, and it needs to be finished within a certain timeframe, an artist might not relish your constructive input nor adhere to a schedule. It is important to keep focused on the goal and learn to be flexible. Set a payment schedule that provides the artist with an income stream as the project progresses, but reserve a good portion of the funds for payment once the work is completed. Meet with a prospective artist a few times before agreeing to a commission. Trust your instincts. If you sense any difficulty communicating or meet resistance to your ideas at the outset, it’s guaranteed to get worse. Select someone else.

Promotion

Promote every step of the way. Adopt the philosophy of “tell them what you are going to do, do it, and then tell them what you’ve done.” If you win a grant for the project, send out a press release when you get it, as well as when you select the artist, select the location, approve the final design for the mural, etc. Post photos on Facebook of the artist at work. Call the local newspaper or TV station to do a story. Plan a gala celebration when it’s done and invite all of the project partners, the media, local elected officials, and the public. The Valley Morning Star ran a series entitled "Creative Re-use Brings Historic Buildings to Life" for three Sundays following the ribbon-cutting for the Downtown Harlingen mural. Colleagues at the ABC affiliate produced a three-minute feature story on the new mural, which aired during morning and evening newscasts on March 28. Get as much mileage out of the project as you can. Write stories like this one to share what you’ve learned and promote your community.

For more information on Harlingen murals, mural artists, or other details involved in managing a mural program, contact Cheryl LaBerge at cheryllaberge@myharlingen.us or 956.216.4910.

This post is a modified version of the feature article in Main Street Matters, a monthly newsletter published by our Texas Main Street Program. It is part of a series of case studies that highlight successful initiatives and events of Texas Main Street cities.

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