Artistic input can transform anything from a high-rise flat to an old factory site into a lively landmark: Blind Walls Gallery in Breda is a master in creating innovative associations. How the city became a canvas for street art.
Dennis Elbers hails from The Hague and originally came to St. Joost Art Academy in Breda to train as a visual artist. He soon traded his own studio for expressive art displays throughout the city.
Façades and blind walls dotted all over Breda are now the canvas for forgotten and new stories. The Blind Walls organisation brings Dutch and international artists to the city specifically for this purpose. “If need be, I’ll also climb up onto a scaffolding to help paint a mural”, Elbers says. “But my main role is to make sure everything is perfectly arranged for the artists.”
It all started in 2008 with the Graphic Design Festival Breda, the predecessor of today’s Graphic Matters event. The idea was to complement exhibitions in the Graphic Design Museum (now part of the Stedelijk Museum Breda) with art out in the streets. The designers created sometimes eye-catching and sometimes extremely subtle public displays throughout the city. People had no idea of the artist’s identity and why a work of art had been created.
As a programme component of the festival, Blind Walls Gallery started consistently creating a series of murals in 2015, using the city as an exhibition space. The paintings were often paid for from municipal spatial planning budgets. “Based on our discussions with the municipality, we decided to choose places that were a little run-down as the locations for Blind Walls Gallery. These locations often stick out like a sore thumb, particularly when you have to make your way through a dingy alley before you reach the city centre. Murals can completely transform the overall impression.”
The municipality is an enthusiastic supporter of the murals. Perfectly logical in Elbers’ opinion. “Creating a work of art and installing it on a roundabout starts at about a hundred thousand euros. A mural is not only relatively inexpensive, it also achieves much more than simply covering over unwanted graffiti.”
But Blind Walls Gallery was even more ambitious: it wanted to be truly relevant for the city. Their next goal was to create 100 murals throughout the city and connect them together in all kinds of ways. Visitors can choose a route on the website and view background information. Or they can pick up a guidebook in one of the eighty participating shops, restaurants and cultural institutions. There are also tours for those who want to visit the murals in the company of a guide. Last year, 12 guides took a total of 2500 people on these tours, ranging from groups of senior citizens and tourists to kindergarten classes.
A tourist who ‘spontaneously’ decides to join a tour is likely to be disappointed though: the tours are generally sold out several weeks in advance. So Elbers has founded a start-up together with a hardware developer and a software programmer in order to develop audio tours. “Tourists will be able to select their own language. If this proves successful, we will be able to market it globally.”
A financially secure future is also important. Blind Walls Gallery has successfully tapped into various sources of revenue, such as corporate sponsorship. Many local businesses like to celebrate their anniversary with a mural - like a tattoo on the city’s surface. Without logos or other advertising, because Elbers wants to avoid vulgar commercialism at all costs.
The mural needs to establish a relationship between the company and a specific location to be accepted. Because Blind Walls Gallery deliberately looks for links between street art and the history and meaning of a location.
The mural created for Lonka, a confectionery manufacturer that originally started out in Breda, is a good example. To mark the company’s 100th anniversary, panels have been installed at the site where the first London Caramel Works stood from 1920 to 1965. The panels depict the iconic Lonka girl, whose pretty face adorned the tins of caramel and Old English Fudge sold by the factory from the 1920s onwards.
Merchandise is also a worthwhile source of income and has even resulted in some strong partnerships. With the help of local suppliers and producers, Blind Walls Gallery has launched an extensive assortment of products, ranging from socks to puzzles and T-shirts. The latest project is an anniversary book, which could be published thanks to crowdfunding. As the first edition was sold in next to no time, a second edition is planned in February 2021.
As an experiment, Blind Walls Gallery also made a temporary wall available to Netflix to promote their Umbrella Academy series. Because there is no link between the painting and the location, it obviously did not meet the objectives of Blind Walls Gallery. Even so, the fee paid by Netflix was enough to create another suitable mural. Good for the cash register.
The murals not only give the streets of Breda a fresh look, they also tell the city’s story in striking images that portray Breda's history, contemporary issues and the future. “We are now going to look strategically at locations where we want murals”, says Elbers.
We have also analysed which historical moments and other stories are still missing. For example, a local story about the ‘Turfschip’, and then of course there’s Carnival and the theme of ‘diversity and inclusion’.”
In addition, the organisation is thinking about different types of tours, such as tours by night. They also see opportunities for ‘augmented reality’, which involves using a smartphone to visualise a new layer on top of a work of art. So there are more than enough innovative plans.
According to Elbers, this success story in Breda is based on the vision and cohesion that underpin the concept. Furthermore, he can see a whole host of opportunities. Although the organisation sometimes has to contend with regulations that protect historic landmarks in the city, he emphasises that littering has reduced significantly elsewhere thanks to the murals. “If one route is closed off, there are always other opportunities.”
The organisation has devised its own assessment system to determine whether a particular work of art has a chance of qualifying for a location. Because there needs to be local support for the painting and the associated narrative. The artist is free to execute as he sees fit, but has to take boundary conditions into account.
This approach worked perfectly in Tuinzigt. The painting in this district depicts the dramatic evacuation of Breda in 1940. “The artwork evoked strong memories and had a real impact on the residents at an emotional level. They now look at their environment in a different way.”
The target of 100 prominent murals is now within reach, much sooner than expected. The main challenge now is to ensure that the organisation, which employs 10 people, does not become a victim of its own success. In fact, there are so many new paintings to celebrate that Elbers sometimes delays sending out yet another introductory press release.
Blind Walls Gallery is one of the few cultural institutions that can be visited during a lockdown. While this generates a great deal of extra interest, the activity needs to be kept at a manageable level. “Our new focus is finding the right balance between growth and all the attention that we could potentially give to the murals.”
All in all, Blind Walls Gallery has resulted in a number of spin-offs, ranging from an audio tour to an assessment system. This has inevitably led to a new challenge, that of long-term continuity, which Elbers is happy to take on. “I intend to watch over the brand and our identity with the utmost care. You have to be constantly aware of the things you are doing. Relaxing your attention just for a moment can lead to unwanted effects.”
Several other municipalities are eager to follow Breda's successful example. So consultancy has now also become part of the business model. Elbers is happy to share his experiences but wants to avoid watered-down copies of Breda’s approach. “I will only share some of the details of our approach if a local organisation is also involved in another municipality. Those local roots are essential. And I want to keep the concept special for Breda.”
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