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Art and Public Law Offices

By Katherine Mikkelson
The completed "You Are Loved" mural at the District of Vermont U.S. Attorney's Office

The completed "You Are Loved" mural at the District of Vermont U.S. Attorney's Office

Photo Credit: Alex Cook

One might not think that art and public law offices go hand in hand. But a number of government offices across the country are beautifying their spaces or their communities in novel ways. Whether their purpose is to raise funds, bring awareness to an issue, or simply enhance an otherwise drab lobby, these public law offices have found creative ways and the funding to make art relevant.

"Alphabetic Evolution" Mural, San Diego District Attorney's Office

When staffers found learned about the planned renovation of the Juvenile Division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office (DAO), they decided to push for a cool piece of artwork for the lobby. Lisa Weinreb, a deputy district attorney, set to work to make it happen.

Weinreb knew that she wanted something colorful, inviting, and progressive but wasn't quite sure exactly how that would translate into a piece of art. She contacted the San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance (SDCAA), a nonprofit arts organization with a diversion program that her office often uses for juvenile offenders. The SDCAA introduced Weinreb to graffiti muralist Jose Venegas. Venegas and Weinreb brainstormed about what to include in the mural and chose words -- create, integrity and honesty -- that would empower youth. Venegas, who grew up in an environment surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence, understood the mission of the piece and, because of his past experiences, understood the struggles that some teenagers face. He supplied a digital version of the piece (which is actually three canvas panels), and he and Weinreb tinkered with the design (with Weinreb showing designs to her chief deputy and to District Attorney Summer Stephan) until everyone was satisfied.

The mural panels only cost the DAO $760, which paid for the canvas and art supplies. The artist donated his time to the project.

In his artist's statement, Venegas said that his piece, titled "Alphabetic Evolution," "represents the bridge that connects the transition of script lettering to graffiti writing as an art form." He explained that the alphabet characters "began to evolve in different fonts and styles created by the graffiti writer. I created this painting to represent the visual transformation of the artist's expression of letters and words, along with its history."

The panels were installed in the lobby of the Juvenile Division in January of 2019. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. "The DA's office is usually not the first place that someone wants to be," said Weinreb, noting that often people are there as victims of crime or as witnesses. "Anything we can do to make it a little more enjoyable to visit is a good thing."

“Alphabetic Evolution” mural, San Diego, CA

“Alphabetic Evolution” mural, San Diego, CA

Photo Credit: San Diego District Attorney's Office

"You are Beautiful" and "Courage Murals," U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Indiana

U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler wanted his office to engage in a community project that related to crime prevention. Partnering with a local school and a nonprofit arts group, the U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) in Indianapolis created two different murals.

In 2016, seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Daniel Webster Middle School on the southwest side of the city met for eight weeks, along with USAO staff and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department personnel. The students, chosen by the principal, worked on self-portraits, with art instruction from an art nonprofit called the Department of Public Words, led by husband-and-wife team David and Holly Combs. The self-portraits were made into a mural that spelled out "You Are Beautiful"; the mural was installed at Daniel Webster Middle School. "These were at-risk kids, and the project was designed to improve self-confidence," said Minkler.

Because the USAO received such positive feedback, it decided to repeat the mural project in 2017 with a different group of seventh- and eighth-grade girls from Daniel Webster. This time, the students chose the theme "Courage" and were quite firm that the mural should hang at the Southwest District of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department where the department does roll call before each shift.

Minkler liked the fact that these two projects had police officers working alongside youth. "[The students were] seeing a police officer in a very different context," he said, referring to the fact that previously police often were only seen conducting an arrest. "The police officer was in their school, working on the project with them, so everyone saw each other in a little bit different light."

The murals cost approximately $1,500 each and were paid for by the Department of Justice through a special fund called Project Safe Neighborhoods, which allocates money for crime-prevention projects.

Minkler hopes that projects such as these can serve as an example to the legal community. "The Department of Justice as a law firm and the USAO as a law firm have to take a leadership role, demonstrating what can be done to prevent violent crime," he said. "We certainly believe we can direct [middle school students] in a positive direction."

Left: the "You Are Beautiful" mural at Daniel Webster Middle School ; Right: the “Courage” mural

Left: the "You Are Beautiful" mural at Daniel Webster Middle School ; Right: the “Courage” mural

Photo credit "Courage" mural: Tim Horty

"Art of Peace" Exhibition, Alameda County District Attorney's Office

As in other jurisdictions, after all appeals are resolved, confiscated guns in California are destroyed, usually by incineration. But the harmful environmental effects didn't sit well with Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, and she decided she wanted to do something different. The District Attorney's Office (DAO) partnered with the Robby Poblete Foundation, founded by Pati Navalta Poblete, whose son Robby was shot and killed by an illegally obtained gun in 2014 when he was 23 years old. The mission of Poblete's group is to work with local law enforcement to turn confiscated guns into art to raise awareness about gun violence. "Pati wanted to take her grief and do something with it to help others. That really resonated so strongly with me," said O'Malley.

In 2018, O'Malley assembled a working group of artists. The working group put out a request for proposals for artists to create sculptural pieces from dismantled guns. The artists submitted drawings, descriptions, and an artist's statement of their piece. The working group selected six artists. An investigator in the office worked with a licensed gun dealer to have the guns broken into parts. The investigator also organized the gun parts into like pieces (gun barrels with gun barrels, grips with grips), which were housed in a warehouse in West Oakland. The artists then selected the pieces they needed to complete their works.

Seven pieces were created, each one unique. The pieces, collectively called the "Art of Peace" exhibition, were shown in a gallery in Old Oakland that donated some space for several weeks. The exhibit then moved to a pop-up gallery for about a month, and then toured several area schools and colleges before settling in the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin, California in the fall of 2019.

The project cost $12,500 and included the dismantling of the guns, along with a stipend for each artist.

"What the artists did with the gun parts is remarkable," said O'Malley. "I love that we took a negative and made it positive. We lured people in through the art, but the dialogue was what was profound."

The DAO hopes to repeat the project in the near future, this time involving high school students.

Five of the seven works created for the “Art of Peace” Exhibition hosted by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office

Five of the seven works created for the “Art of Peace” Exhibition hosted by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office

From left to right: 300 Shots Fired; Flame of Reason; Wave of Gun Violence; Trouble Helix; Gunnosaurus. Photo Credit: Ray Cazares

"You Are Loved" Mural, U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Vermont

The "You are Loved" mural in Burlington, Vermont, came about by chance, after Aimee Stearns received a small piece of wood with the message "You Are Loved" from her niece for Christmas. Stearns, the victim witness coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO), thought that the message would resonate with her clients, many of whom are victims of human trafficking.

In February of 2017, she called the Boston-based artist Alex Cook to see whether he would be willing to do a mural in downtown Burlington with the "You Are Loved" message. The event would serve to educate the community about human trafficking and also send a message to those who had been trafficked. Cook was just beginning his work as a muralist. After getting buy-in (and funding, more on that below) from her office, including the approval of then acting U.S. Attorney Eugenie Cowles, Stearns set about trying to find a suitable site. "I walked all around Burlington. I really wanted a downtown location so there would be good visibility," she said. Stearns found a wall on the side of building right across from the Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop on Church Street. "I called the owner, and he said yes immediately. It was a wonderful surprise and made me feel that it was meant to be."

Stearns collaborated with Cook on the design, modeled from existing designs on the artist's website, and expressed her desire for purple and blue hues. In June of 2017, Cook drove to Burlington to work on the mural. He first painted an outline freehand; and then USAO staffers, Stearns' clients, and other community members got to work filling in and painting the design, much like a large-scale paint-by-number kit. Afterward, Cook touched up the mural and added fine brushstrokes over the entire design; the work was completed in three days.

The mural cost the USAO about $5,000, which included the artist's fee as well as mileage, hotel charges, and a daily per diem for Cook.

Three years later, the mural is still beautiful. "It's become somewhat of a meeting spot in Burlington," said Stearns. "People love to take pictures in front of it, and, hey, who among us can't use that message? The best result is that the trafficked women who worked on it feel real ownership around it."

On the two year anniversary, the USAO held another event on Church Street to commemorate the wall and its message. Staffers handed out "You Are Loved" T-shirts designed and donated by local businesses, and the U.S. Attorney, Christina Nolan, spoke about the importance of recognizing the signs of human trafficking and reporting it. "I am very proud our office was able to facilitate a project that can be enjoyed by all, as well as serve to remind the public about the dangers of human trafficking," wrote Nolan in a statement.

Volunteers work on the "You Are Loved" mural, Burlington, VT

Volunteers work on the "You Are Loved" mural, Burlington, VT

Photo Credit: District of Vermont, U.S. Attorney's Office

Art Aid Naples, Legal Aid Service of Collier County, Florida

Legal Aid Service of Collier County was the beneficiary of not one but two art events --sponsored by Art Aid Naples, a group of artists passionate about the mission of Legal Aid -- that raised funds for its organization.

Laura Barnard, a retired special education teacher, spearheaded the idea in January of 2019 after a friend was deported to Guatemala, leaving behind his wife and five children. Looking for immigration lawyers, Barnard reached out to Legal Aid and spoke with Sister Maureen Kelleher, an attorney on staff who is now retired. Inspired by the work of Kelleher, Barnard decided that she wanted to do something to help raise money and awareness for the organization. She went to a gallery in town, and the owner gave her the names of 10 artists. Another gallery put her in touch with additional artists. Thirty artists generously donated artwork, which was showcased at a launch party. After a weeklong online auction, Art Aid Naples raised $28,000 in February of 2019.

In November of 2019, Leslie Vega, daughter of George Vega (who served as a Florida assistant attorney general and later moved into private practice), approached Barnard with another idea. Vega wanted to honor her father, who had recently died, and help raise funds for Legal Aid. Vega came up with the Quick Draw event. The event was held at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club, and approximately 27 artists, recruited by Vega and Barnard, participated. After the artists worked in plein air (the French term for painting outside) for three hours, the art was immediately auctioned off, with Naples Mayor Bill Barnett serving as auctioneer. The event raised another $28,000.

"The artists [for these events] really care about the mission of Legal Aid," said Jeff Ahren, director of development. "Some of them are former attorneys. They know about Legal Aid and are passionate about the issues."

Legal Aid did incur some costs for both events, including licensing for an online auction tool ($2,600); print ads ($5,000); printing ($380); T-shirts ($400); video production costs ($5,500); and food, beverages and supplies for the launch party ($1,000). Additionally, teams of volunteers spent countless hours coordinating the events and helping Legal Aid development staff promote and facilitate these events.

Legal Aid hopes to repeat both events in the future.

Artists at work at the Quick Draw event, Naples, FL

Artists at work at the Quick Draw event, Naples, FL

Photo Credit: Ray Cazares

Artist in Residence, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office (DAO) may be the first public law office in the country to host an artist in residence.

James "Yaya" Hough will serve as the artist in residence (AIR) from between six and nine months and will have a small office in the DAO. He will interview assistant DAs and staff, victims of crime, and previously incarcerated individuals; will go to court; and will acquaint himself with policy, the law and criminal justice reform issues. Hough's work will culminate in a number of paintings of his interviewees that will be displayed in gallery space, the DAO and a possible third location. Hough will also produce a series of short videos that will be presented in conjunction with programming and projected on screens and on the side of the city hall during the month of October. Additionally, Hough's work will be displayed online.

The purpose of the AIR is to explore the human toll of incarceration and highlight the importance of creating alternatives to a punitive and incarceration-driven justice system. "We are hoping for dialogue between groups," said Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, one of the partnering agencies of the project. "We are hoping for different relationships and a different way of seeing these issues."

The idea for the project came from Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP), a New York-based organization comprised of a national network of elected prosecutors working toward commonsense, compassionate criminal justice reforms. FJP approached Mural Arts Philadelphia. The idea seemed like a good fit to Golden. "We have a good relationship with different government agencies and the courts," said Golden, noting that her organization has worked with the DAO and the public defender's office previously. Also, the project fit with Mural Arts Philadelphia's mission -- to empower people, stimulate dialogue, and advocate for change around critical social issues, with art at the center of these efforts.

Hough was chosen after a request for proposals and a rigorous selection process. The intent was to select an artist who was in some way impacted by the criminal justice system. In fact, Hough was charged and convicted of murder when he was 17 years old and was incarcerated for 23 years. "James spoke so eloquently about his ideas [when he presented to the selection committee], it was clear that this came from his own personal journey," said Golden. "As well as being very talented, Hough is very thoughtful and empathetic."

The project is funded through a grant from the Art for Justice Fund, part of the Ford Foundation. The total project budget is $37,000, which pays for the artist, his assistant, materials and programming, as well as some administrative costs.

"There are few better demonstrations of the tremendous human potential wasted by a system of mass incarceration than the deeply moving expressions of creativity produced by formerly incarcerated artists," wrote District Attorney Larry Krasner in a press release at the project's launch. "This innovative residency program will help reveal the spark of humanity and the potential for rehabilitation within many in the system and illuminate a way forward for this and other prosecutors' offices."

Hough's residency will conclude in November of 2020, and Golden hopes that the AIR project will be repeated in the future.

James “Yaya” Hough, Artist in Residence for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office

James “Yaya” Hough, Artist in Residence for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office

Project Reset and Art of Healing Festivals, Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Project Reset is a diversion program created by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in partnership with the New York Police Department and local community-based organizations. Initially launched as a pilot for 16- and 17-year-olds in Manhattan, Project Reset now operates across Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn and accepts individuals of all ages. Under the program, individuals arrested for low-level offenses -- including petit larceny, criminal trespass and drug possession -- who do not have a serious criminal record can complete a diversion program prior to their first court appearance. Upon successful completion of the program, they can have their case dismissed without ever stepping foot inside a courtroom.

One of the service providers, Young New Yorkers, serves young adults, ages 18 to 20, doing art-based restorative programming. Based at the Swiss Institute, an art gallery in Lower Manhattan, the program leads attendees through facilitated dialogue and art exercises. For example, the session may begin with attendees taking photographs of each other. The facilitator might then ask attendees to discuss their vision of youth empowerment. After the attendees share their ideas, they learn how to make collages with the photographs, which provides attendees an opportunity to reflect on self-identity, according to Rachel Barnard, executive director of Young New Yorkers. Once the attendees complete the program, their obligation is met, and the District Attorney's Office (DAO) declines to prosecute.

To date, 2,802 people have successfully completed Project Reset. "When people in the program learn that the DA's office funds this, it sends a meaningful signal," said Maggie Wolk, chief of strategic planning and policy for the Manhattan DAO. "Yes, we want to gain efficiencies and reduce recidivism, but more compelling is that people see that the system is fair and dignified and that they have been treated in a way that is proportionate to the crime."

The DAO's Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) -- which Vance created using criminal forfeiture funds obtained through the DAO's settlements with international banks for violating U.S. sanctions -- has provided $7.7 million to fund Project Reset's programming in Manhattan.

As for the artwork, the DAO hosts two exhibitions per year at an off-site location. Wolk said that the DAO hopes to work with attendees to display the pieces in a permanent way in its offices.

In addition to Project Reset, the Manhattan DAO has hosted three Art of Healing Festivals. The festivals, held in various spots in Harlem, aim to heal the trauma of gun violence through art, food and games. The festivals have been a collaboration between the DAO and Thrive Collective, a nonprofit that provides art education to public schools.

The festivals feature live music, singing and dance performances by youth groups; mural painting; quilt making; T-shirt and button making; and spoken word performances. During the event's first year in 2018, Aalayah Eastmond, an activist and survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, gave remarks. Planning for each festival is extensive, according to Estelle Strykers-Santiago, the director of the Manhattan DAO's Community Partnerships Unit. "We brainstormed on what each agency could bring to the table," she said.

The festivals have been held at elementary schools and a youth opportunity hub, locations specifically chosen because they offer an alternative, interior location in case of rain and also because of the good foot traffic. The events are free and open to anyone who walks by. "The festival brings together law enforcement and the community," said Strykers-Santiago. "People always comment on how unifying it is."

The DAO budgeted approximately $3,600 for the last festival -- a small portion of the overall budget because there was cost sharing with other involved agencies. The funds paid for Thrive Collective to hire artists and also paid for the food. "We provide the seed money, and when groups hear it is happening, they contribute, too. It really is a group effort," said Strykers-Santiago.

"The restorative and healing properties of art are well-known, and incorporating these benefits into the criminal justice system was a natural fit," wrote Vance in a statement.

We are incredibly proud to be able to offer arts programming as a means of diversion for low-level offenders and as a tool for healing for those who have been harmed by gun violence. Following the success of both of these initiatives, we will continue to look for ways to incorporate art into our criminal justice process.
Festival goers at one of the Art of Healing Festivals

Festival goers at one of the Art of Healing Festivals

Photo Credit: Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Public Defender Offices

Even public defender offices -- typically cash-strapped -- are finding ways to communicate to the community while beautifying their spaces.

In October 2019, the Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) opened a new office in Detroit. Prominently displayed in the lobby to greet clients, visitors and staff are several posters. The posters were designed by a staffer, printed at a copy center, and then framed for a cost of about $50 per poster. The posters outline the client-centered holistic approach shared by attorneys and staff. "At NDS Detroit, we believe in values-based hiring, training, and space-allocation," Chantá Parker, NDS managing director, wrote in an email. "We placed these posters on the walls, throughout our office, to let our clients and their families know who and what we stand for and to remind our staff of the core values and principles that inform every aspect of our work."

Likewise, the Kentucky state public defender office, the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) in Frankfort, installed a threshold engraved with the provision from the Kentucky Constitution guaranteeing the right to counsel. Made of granite and embedded in the concrete outside the front door, it proclaims, "In all criminal prosecutions the accused has the right to be heard by himself and counsel." The threshold measures 24 inches by 36 inches and cost $1,000 for both the granite and engraving. Jerry J. Cox, former chair of the Public Advocacy Commission (the governing board of the statewide public defense program), generously donated the funds for the project. "By stepping across the words of section 11 of Kentucky's constitution at the threshold, visitors recognize that the building stands to protect more than just its occupants. It is a fortress guarding the right to counsel in the commonwealth," Kentucky Public Advocate Damon Preston wrote in an email.

Just steps away from the threshold in the lobby is the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights' Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians. Over 50 civil rights leaders, activists and trailblazers are highlighted, each with his or her own 12-by-16-inch colorful poster featuring a headshot and life story. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights donated the posters to the DPA at no cost. However, the framing of all the posters cost $3,000. To cover that expense, the DPA obtained a $1,500 grant from the Kentucky Humanities Council and also solicited $1,500 in private donations. "I am honored to be a part of the organization that houses the Gallery of Great Black Kentuckians. Every day, visitors to our office and our employees are educated about magnificent African-American leaders and pioneers who made a difference with their lives," wrote Preston. "The exhibit is an inexpensive monument that reminds us of the greatness we can achieve through a life of service to others."

Threshold at the Kentucky state public defender office, the Department of Public Advocacy, Frankfort, KY

Threshold at the Kentucky state public defender office, the Department of Public Advocacy, Frankfort, KY

Made of granite and embedded in the concrete outside the front door, it proclaims, “In all criminal prosecutions the accused has the right to be heard by himself and counsel.”


Government offices do not have to be drab, barren spaces. Around the country, government lawyers have found creative ways to liven up their works spaces while at the same time unifying their communities. Public lawyers have been instrumental in using art to heighten awareness of an issue or raise funds for operations. With some creative thinking and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get started, these projects are replicable in your community.

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Katherine Mikkelson

Associate Director

Katherine Mikkelson is the Division’s associate director. She is a former federal attorney who once shared a drab, windowless office decorated only with sticky note reminders and dead plants.