Coat of a Different Color

Publicolor applies color to neglected school hallways and instills hope in its young volunteers.

Ruth Lande Shuman wants to change the world one bucket of Benjamin Moore at a time. The founder and head of Publicolor, the non-profit organization that paints New York City public schools in colors brighter than the typical drab hues, is convinced that social change can start with a can of paint. Judging by the response at Stir, Splatter, and Roll, a recent Publicolor benefit dinner, many designers and architects agree.

Publicolor is dedicated to improving the public school system both through the direct physical effect (brighter schools = happier kids) and the more subtle social effect. The organization sets up after-school painting clubs, and though the group stays involved, it leaves much of the individual responsibility up to the kids. “Each day I’d break the paint club into smaller units,” Shuman remembers of the first large school she Publicolored, Newark, New Jersey’s Central High. “I had different kids taking on the role of project manager for the week so they all had the chance to work under each other and with each other.” Sound a little kumbaya? “The result was that in the four and the half months we were there, there wasn’t one intercultural…” she stops, but the silence says enough.

The CEO of New York City’s Board of Education took notice and gave Publicolor a trial school—New York’s Middle School 57—which he thought was one of the lowest-performing schools. “I worked there seven days a week for six and a half weeks,” Shuman says, and got “results from these kids that are nothing short of miraculous.”

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At Stir, Splatter, and Roll, architects, designers, and artists milled about the festive and lively atmosphere. Adam Tihany, Tucker Viemeister, Jonathan Marvel, Vicente Wolfe, Jon Pfeiffer, and Leni Schwendinger all made appearances as team leaders at the festive dinner and led groups of teenagers in painting large-scale canvases that would be used to decorate their schools. Most of the canvases had some abstracted form of the word Publicolor on them. PR by any other name…

Viemeister was happy to help, and said he thought the program might, too, but takes a slightly different tack than Shuman. He told a story about a factory in Berlin. Production was lagging, so the managers painted the factory bright blue. Production went up. So they took a chance on yellow. Production went up even more. What about red? You guessed it: even more. But, as Viemeister pointed out, it wasn’t the colors that changed the production levels; it was the feeling that someone cared enough to paint.

Shuman admits that what exactly is lowering crime rates in the schools she’s painted (and, yes, studies have been done and, yes, students claim to feel safer) is still an open question, but is still inclined to stick with color’s inherent value. Having turned schools like the High School for Art and Design into an almost over-painted sequence of yellows, greens, and blues, it makes sense. “If you paint grey that’s gotten really worn with a fresh grey, is that the same as painting over that grey with a yellow?” she asks, clearly rhetorically. “I think the yellow’s going to make a difference.”

Artist Michele Oka Doner was seated next to a reporter at the benefit. Asked why she supported Publicolor, when there were so many different ways to approach educational change—better-designed schools, after-school programs, mentoring, smaller class sizes— she argued that small steps were, ultimately, not insignificant. “One plus one plus one equals a zillion,” she said. Shuman, speaking earlier that evening, made much the same point. Painting, she said, “gives you a bigger bang for your buck.”

The kids at the event seemed well-prepped to respond to questions. Narita Shelton, a fifteen-year-old at PS 145, who has been involved with Publicolor for a year, said that the organization had given her a “good opportunity to better myself.” And Shuman is intent that the participants do better themselves, teaching responsibility the hard way. If they start a wall, but don’t finish, they’re out. “I’d say to the kids, I’d tease them: If perfection isn’t your middle name, forget it,” Shuman says. The school of hard knocks via orange paint.

There is much dilettante philanthropy in New York, and it is clear that Shuman isn’t screwing around. But how much is Publicolor changing the New York City public school landscape? How much does one can of paint really do? And, in the end, if it’s true that it’s just attention that does the trick, isn’t there a better way to spend our resources, our auction proceeds, our benefit dollars? Teaching responsibility is a serious thing; painting our schools orange isn’t. And while, so far, the results seem almost too good to be true, it might be only a matter of time before the painting clubs aren’t so new and exciting, and the paint wears off, and the kids get bored, and the trouble starts up again. Until then, though, paint on, Publicolor. Paint on.

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