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The arts’ rising economic power; how public art is transforming communities in the Lehigh Valley

“There are two distinct languages. There is the verbal, which separates people…and there is the visual, that is understood by everybody.” -Yaacov Agam, artist.

Public art has the power to beautify and create the identity of a neighborhood.

But there is something more. The ability of that art to transform a neighborhood economically.

Nationwide, real estate developers like New Jersey-based NRIA are  turning city walls into canvases, and the results have lasting economic effects on local neighborhoods.  Planting the seeds of an arts district in the town of Guttenberg in northern New Jersey, NRIA is encouraged by research that shows that supporting the arts is good for business.

A recent study by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom found that the presence of street art in London neighborhoods increased the property value of the homes and businesses surrounding the art.

Evidence like that is becoming difficult to ignore. Some $135 billion in economic activity is generated by the arts sector annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Easton’s renaissance

Matthew Nixon’s Easton mural helped solidify the city as an arts destination.

Easton has experienced the ability of the arts to transform a community firsthand. Easton suffered economic downturns in the 1990s, but is now considered one of the top 100 small art cities in the country by the National Arts Administration. In fact, Easton’s mayor reports regularly that the arts and tourism have become a main economic driver for the riverside community.

Deliberately placed murals throughout the city were a part of that.

“Murals attract tourism and development dollars,” said Anthony Marraccini, manager of Connexions Art Gallery in Easton.

Marraccini sat on Easton’s cultural arts committee during the city’s renaissance in the mid-2000s. “Murals have many positive outcomes with regards to community and economic development. We were keenly aware of what they could do and did do for our city.”

Matthew Nixon, an Easton-based artist and designer, was commissioned by the city in 2008 to paint a mural at a busy intersection of one the city’s entry-ways. His art was chosen from a series of mural proposals that incorporated the city’s history and a transportation theme.

Nixon’s design, a rendering of Josiah White, a key Pennsylvania industrialist, and mules moving supplies along the Lehigh Canal, has become an iconic landmark in the city.

“I was honored to be chosen to paint the mural for the city,” Nixon said. “Since its completion, it’s become a part of the community’s fabric.  One by one, more murals have appeared on the sides of buildings here.  I can truly say that Easton has become an arts and cultural hub in part because of the hard work of its artists.”

About an hour from Easton, and just across the river from Manhattan, National Realty Investment Advisors or NRIA, the New Jersey-based national real estate investment fund, has designed a mural contest to help spur the development of an arts district around it.  NRIA partnered with a local developer to create the district within the town of Guttenberg, New Jersey.

A rendering of NRIA’s Green Urban building in Guttenberg, New Jersey, the site of a future mural-photo/provided

Guttenberg, while one of the smallest municipalities in the state, is the most densely populated, and one of the most densely populated municipalities worldwide. And within just a half block radius on the west side of town, there are six arts-related buildings in development.

“We are looking to create something like the famous arts neighborhoods of SOHO and Hoboken,” said Glenn La Mattina, senior vice president of operations and global development with NRIA. “Murals, art museums, outdoor sculpture, cafes.”

Creating identities

In urban planning, this concept is called “placemaking,” capitalizing on a city’s assets and potential, with the intention of creating spaces that promote a specific identity, such as a cultural hub.

In spring of 2021, NRIA invited area artists to participate in the Green Urban Guttenberg mural contest. Partnering with Guttenberg Arts, a local nonprofit, the contest awards $5,000 and much-valued exposure to the winning artist. The artwork will be prominently displayed as a mural on NRIA’s Green Urban, a multi-family commercial real estate development.

And while there are plenty of towns featuring murals, each has a unique story.  It becomes what drives a neighborhood’s personality. Proximity to the artwork becomes a coveted quality. Other blank spaces around town become seen as canvases, again adding worth to what was until recently likely ignored.

Drawing from the same energy that is fueling many successful ventures today, communities, artists and businesses like NRIA are cooperating to create something that is not only unique, but also shared.

“We are making a $250 million investment in Guttenberg,” said Mario Echevarria, the developer partnering with NRIA on the arts district. “I feel proud of the work we are doing and the impact it will have. It’s a vibrant community. And this is a rebirth.”

Closer to home, Easton’s rebirth as an arts community is driving development throughout the Lehigh Valley.

“The arts in Easton, and many communities, have been a transforming influence,” said Connexions Gallery’s Marraccini. “A once-boom town that had fallen on hard times has rapidly become a regional destination again. It was through creativity that this city was reborn. The arts, public arts included, were at the forefront of that evolution.”

Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at [email protected]. or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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