The soul of a city

Ithaca’s public art speaks in the community’s voice

"Flock Together" is a public art piece on the top floor of the Seneca Street Garage by artist @mrprvrt.
"Flock Together" is a public art piece on the top floor of the Seneca Street Garage by artist @mrprvrt.
Photo by Jamie Swinnerton

There are around 153 public art displays in the city of Ithaca. They can be found on the walls of the parking garages, the electrical boxes on the street corners, covering the walls of Southside Community Center (both inside and out), and even driving around on trucks and vans. The City of Ithaca and the greater community have made publicly available art a staple of the area. Going into 2019 that mission continues with a call to anyone in the area with an idea for more public art.

Ithaca Murals is a local organization started by Caleb Thomas that has been working to support public art in the Ithaca area for about 10 years. According to the Ithaca Murals website, back in 2009 the City of Ithaca only had around 15 murals. Now there are 10 times that many that are finished, several more in production, and Ithaca Murals is putting out the call for future projects.

Last year, Thomas had some extra funding leftover, and instead of giving it to himself he used it to start a mini-grant project for around six more murals. This year, the mini-grants, up to $300 each, are back, and with the help of sponsors and fundraisers, Thomas hopes to give out somewhere between 12 and 20 more grants. Applications are due by Jan. 15.

“If we’re going to have an amazing, artful, creative springtime, we’ve got to organize now,” Thomas said. “So, I realized that this little mini-grant offers a deadline, and for artists, some incentive for them to get going.”

The sky is the limit when it comes to ideas for more public murals and project ideas. The money could be used to supplement a larger project, or used for the entirety. Collaborations are welcome. Residents who have an idea but aren’t artists are encouraged to team up with local artists to make it happen.

Thomas sees his job as being a resource for local artists. He’s not there to tell an artist what to do, or how to do it, but to help guide them through the process of making a piece of public art come to life. For him, art is the soul of a community, and of a movement. It speaks to the wants, needs, hopes, and fears of the people. His first mural, in this capacity, is the Underground Railroad mural on Green Street below the Aurora Street bridge. The weathered mural created in 2009 might soon need to be refurbished, which is another project Ithaca Murals would collaborate with the community to get done. Who knows? Maybe a mini-grant will go towards bringing the mural back to its best life again.

Sometimes it’s not the mural itself that presents a problem for applicants, it’s where to put it.

“I’d say the biggest hurdle for people is generally that questions of ‘Where? How do I get permission for a location?’” Thomas said. “And so, I just encourage people to be bold and ask, to be ambitious. Many of these murals happened by someone taking that risk to ask, to say ‘Who owns the building? What would it take to have a mural here?’”

Business owners in the area have been generally very supportive of public art on their property, Thomas said. The city as well. Murals that are located in the city parking garages, on the electrical boxes and retaining walls are all on city property. For artists looking to coordinate with the city on an application, Thomas said he is more than happy to help them navigate those channels. He’s done it plenty of times before. He also doesn’t mind if applicants want to apply for the grant first and then want help getting permission from City Hall.

“I would like people to be resourceful with who they know,” Thomas said. “Who’s got a garage, the outside of a dorm? Whatever it takes.”

Find a space, ask to fill it.

The theme of the murals has to include an “aspect of justice,” according to the application, which can be found at The application must also include the dimensions, materials list, budget, timeline, amount of money being requested, a picture of the location, a description and image of the proposed mural, and several examples of previous art experience, among other things. The applications will be juried by representatives from the many co-sponsors of the mini-grants, and successful proposals will “demonstrate potential impact project will have on our communities.”

“The proposals don’t need to look like anything we already have in Ithaca,” Thomas said. “It’s really wide open. Also, I would say that if you feel daunted by the process, maybe someone has a really good idea but doesn’t have painting experience, team up with somebody. I’m an advocate for people collaborating to make things successful.”

Thomas has resources available to try and make every project a success, including a lending library of paint available to artists by donation, or for free. Submissions for the mini-grants can be dropped off at Southside Community Center, or sent to


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