Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inside/Outside - Art by Prison Inmates and Ex-Offenders

Leon Jesse James, "Space Modulator", acrylic on board. SCI Graterford

The Art in City Hall program of the City of Philadelphia has just opened a new exhibition, INSIDE/OUTSIDE - Art by Prison Inmates and Ex-Offenders. This is a wonderful, powerful, and thought-provoking new show and I encourage everyone to see it. It is open until October 29th, on the secod and fourth floors of City Hall. More information is available here. The show involves participating artists from SCI Graterford, The Philadelphia Prison System, Art for Justice, Snyderman-Works Galleries, Connection Training Services, and the Mural Arts Program's Youth Violence Reduction Partnership Guild Program, as well as local ex-offenders.

Thomas Schilk, "Beetle", melted plastic spoons, paint.
When I came to my position in 2008 as Chief Cultural Officer, one of the appeals of the position was the fact that the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter viewed the arts as being integral to virtually all aspects of how we build the best possible Philadelphia for our citizens and visitors. Art is not only a vehicle for attracting tourists, or providing a rich, rewarding environment for our citizens, but also a tool that can be used to heal, to educate, to bring people together, to help us better understand ourselves, and one another. This show highlights an especially powerful value of art - helping prisoners to express themselves, and hopefully provide a measure of rehabilitation as well as self-exploration and self-expression. In addition to prisoners, there is also a role the arts can play with ex-offenders, helping them onto a path that can better integrate them with society, with their community. For some, the most talented, the arts can even provide a valuable skill that can help create an income for them as they leave incarceration.

The artists and arts programs featured in this exhibition paint a rich picture of the incredible power of the arts, and the talent that can than lie within our most troubled, challenged populations. This is not easy stuff. Sometimes art can help prisoners express their anguish, their pain, their anger. Art can be a tool for telling their stories, and it can also be a vehicle for finding peace and solace. Ultimately we all wish for fewer people in prison, less gun violence, less criminal behavior. Art can play a role at both ends of this issue;  in helping young people express themselves, find their inner value and see the possibilities for them outside a life of crime, and also helping those that have gone down that path of crime to find a way back, and sometimes to understand the impact their actions have had on the lives of others.

This issue of the role of the arts in the lives of prisoners and ex-offenders, is so rich and so complex, there is no way it can be fully explored in one exhibition or one blog post. Recently, a documentary film was made called Concrete, Steel and Paint, that explored the issues around an effort by the restorative justive program of Mural Arts to use mural making as a way to bring together and create some healing between prisoners and victims of crime and their families and advocates. I think the movie powerfully conveys the strong emotions that can surface around these issues.(The film is featured as part of this exhibition.)

I was also able to recently visit the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, an extraordinary unique museum. While any attempt to but it into a "box" is doomed to fail, the museum celebrates the work of "outsider" artists, and many of the works in the collection were made by prisoners or by artists who had spent many years - even decades - incarcerated. This puts "prisoner art" in a different context, with other self-taught and nonprofessional artists.And this exhibition can be viewed from that perspective as well.

The origins of this show are interesting. Several months ago, the Mayor visited Graterford prison and was given paintings by many of the inmates who were active in their art program. When he returned he asked me if these could be displayed somewhere in City Hall. Rather than simply exhibit a few disconnected works, it seemed like an opportunity to tell a larger story. I met with the Art in City Hall advisory committee, and with Tu Huynh who directs the program, and a plan was developed to create a full Art in City Hall exhibition working with an array of partners.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, and the Art in City Hall program are proud to have been able to assemble this exhibition that brings art, justice and community together, and that hopefully will raise awareness of the critical role the arts can play in criminal justice and public safety.


  1. Gary, great blog. There is currently a great exhibition is Washington - the art of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Very powerful. So many things you said about the Art in City Hall Exhibition also apply to this one. Thanks for putting it into words. June

  2. Thanks June - I saw a great show a few years ago at the Japanese-American Museum in LA on art from the internment camps. Wonder if it is the same show? Thanks again for your comment!

  3. It seems that you've put a great amount of time into your article and I want a lot more of these on the internet these days.
    Well, anyways... it certainly was very informative for me.


  4. Hi Gary,
    Currently a graduate student and focusing on my thesis "Best Practices in Art Therapy for Prisoners" and will be attending the exhibit tomorrow morning. Looking forward to it. Would you be around for a statement or perhaps a discuss later?
    Kim Quinn

  5. Kim - please check with my assistant Betsy Riley at betsy.riley@phila.gov, or 215-686-3989 in order to check if we can find some time to talk. Also, you should speak with Tu Huynh who directs the Art in City Hall program and organized the show.

  6. Hi Gary, I found your blog article while researching partnerships that bring the arts to prisoners. Mural Arts does such amazing work, but can you point me towards music organizations doing similar work in Philadelphia?