If you’ve walked around Center City lately, you might spot ugly, yellow ads lining our city’s public trash cans. Many Philadelphians took to social media to moan and groan about it. What’s the city doing selling ad spaces on garbage, anyway?
Conrad Benner, who runs StreetsDept.com, took his objections to the advertisements a step further, and created #TrashcanTakeover. One morning, Center City woke up to 18 beautified trash cans, covered in works from local artists. One depicts Marge Simpson on a pink canvas, holding up a sign that says “The future is female.” Another shows an imagined version of City Hall, where a woman of color wearing a shirt that says “You belong” replaces William Penn.
It was, for Benner, an example of using art as an avenue to civic engagement. Now he’s turning that same sentiment to an issue even more important to him (and all of us): Voting.
“We need to find ways to remind people that this is more than just a day, voting affects every single thing in our lives,” Benner says.
This month, Benner is teaming up with Mural Arts Philadelphia and 10 Philadelphia artists to counter the city’s historically low voter turnout through To The Polls, a mural exhibit at a warehouse space in Spring Arts. Participating artists will include Loveis Wise, Wit López, Willis “Nomo” Humphrey, Nilé Livingston, and Marisa Velázquez-Rivas.
Each artist will have an 8×8-foot temporary mural wall in the warehouse to fill with artwork that serves as a rallying cry to Philadelphians to vote, and to explore the complex issues that affect the city’s different communities. Some of the artists Benner already knew personally; others he found through social media or were people whose work he deeply admired.
To the Polls strategically launches two weeks before voter registration for the midterms closes in Pennsylvania on October 9th, in the hopes of motivating people who haven’t registered to do so. There will be a voter registration drive at the exhibit. “To the Polls will investigate whether art can effectively illustrate the stakes of national issues, and remind people of the power of collective action,” Benner says.
Benner launched StreetsDept.com in 2011 as a photo-blog dedicated to celebrating Philadelphia’s street art. He had never taken a single art class, but loved the vivid, plentiful murals he saw everyday in Philly. The city’s streets became his classroom. StreetsDept now has an Instagram following of 139,000 people, and Benner last year also launched a podcast.
In recent years, Benner has been able to collaborate with artists to create public art installations that he hopes make Philadelphians think critically about their city and its public spaces. “Over the last several years, I’ve been thinking about how to use being a curator to sort of advance and address social and political issues,” he says. He’s worked on issues of youth homelessness, municipal elections, democracy, and more.
Like many, Benner was disappointed with turnout during the 2016 presidential election, when only 64 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia, and 48 percent nationally, went to the polls. “If everyone voted,” he says, “I think we’d end up with a government that truly reflected the diversity, the beauty, that this country has.”
This midterm season, Benner isn’t waiting to see what happens. He notes that around 346,000 Philadelphians of voting age aren’t even registered to vote. And turnout for off-year elections has been paltry, at best, in the past: Last November, just 20 percent of registered voters went to the polls in the race that decided our new District Attorney.
Benner has been inspired by other Philly-based public art installations, like Truth to Power, which popped up during the summer Philly hosted the Democratic National Convention, and brought together over 200 international and local artists to respond to social issues. He believes, strongly, in the power of public art.
“I don’t think advertisers would spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on outdoor advertising if it didn’t affect the way that we think, the way that we feel, the way that we behave,” he says. “We want these murals to go viral, so the goal is, if you come out, maybe you use the tools that we’re giving you to talk about voting and civic engagement across your social media channels.”
The exhibit opens Wednesday, September 26 at 5 pm with a party; there will be food, music, celebration and, of course, volunteers registering people. But Benner hopes Philadelphians will also come out for the more serious events that To The Polls is planning, like a panel discussion on October 1st, where attendees can engage critically with issues about voting and civic engagement.
Once the exhibit is over, artists will take the temporary murals home, and Benner has given them the liberty to use them as they see fit. But if To The Polls is successful, he hopes it will be the first iteration of other campaigns like this one. “I’d like to try to have this exhibition happen every time there is an election year,” he says. “We need to find ways to remind people that this is more than just a day, voting affects every single thing in our lives.”
Wednesday, September 26-October 3, 12 pm-5 pm, Free, 448 North 10th St.