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Choose your own art adventure

In the artful streets of Boston with Julia Swanson ’00

If you’ll be walking around Boston anytime soon, add some culture to your day with The Art Walk Project. Started by Julia Swanson ’00, the project is a series of self-guided micro tours of public art, including murals, sculptures, and installations, in various neighborhoods around the city. Each art walk, free to use on the project’s website, includes a beautifully designed map, information about each artwork on the route, total distance, estimated duration, and the nearest MBTA stops. We spoke with Swanson about the origins of The Art Walk Project and what she hopes people will get out of it.

What made you start this project?

I started The Art Walk Project in 2020 as a direct result of the COVID lockdowns. As a furloughed employee, I was stuck at home doom-scrolling the news. I realized pretty quickly that I needed an outlet, but perhaps more importantly, I needed a way to reconnect with the community that had been so integral to my life up until March 2020.

As an artist my creative impulses typically manifested as photography and digital art. I really wanted to try something new, something where I was creating an experience that could take me out of the pandemic funk. Museums were still closed, restaurants and cafes weren’t really open, and people weren’t going out into public spaces and gathering, so that communal experience and connection we have with other people, even on a surface level, was gone. I came up with this idea one day to head into the city and try to find all the public art I could think of in one neighborhood. I spent an afternoon scouring an area looking for art, and in that short time, I felt renewed, like I had a completely new experience. At that moment it occurred to me that if doing this helped me, then maybe it could help others too.

Allston Art Walk map

How did your experience at UMass inform or help launch the project?

When I started my freshman year, I thought I would have a straightforward extension of my previous educational experience, but I quickly realized that education is whatever you make of it. So my experience at UMass became much more a choose-your-own-adventure in the best possible way. I did a ton of different activities, studied abroad twice (in Italy and then in Mexico), and worked at the student-run co-op, The People’s Market. Through some interesting history and comparative literature classes, combined with my own creative interests and travel, I started to explore the idea of different genres of art (specifically public art and graphic novels) being used as conduits for opening more complex social, political, and cultural dialogues.

In many ways this project is a direct extension of that idea. Seeing these large installations and murals around town, it became obvious how important it is to have works of art easily accessible and in public. It gives us all the opportunity to gain perspective and helps us better understand who we are, who we were, and who we hope to be.

art isn’t just viewed—it’s experienced

Seaport Art Walk map

What do you most want people to take away from an art walk experience?

I think it’s important for people to understand that art isn’t just viewed—it’s experienced. The Art Walk Project is not only a public art project but also a complete creative experience and an easy way to get some exercise. It is designed to encourage you to move your body and look away from your device, while providing a new lens through which to experience a neighborhood and connect with a community, familiar or not.

Back Bay Art Walk map

What’s next for the project?

The project is always evolving. I am looking to forge new relationships with businesses and organizations both big and small. Perhaps more importantly, I’m looking to expand the project beyond the Metro Boston area and hopefully outside of Massachusetts.

Central Square Art Walk map

Anything else you want people to know?

I really wanted people to feel comfortable using the website even if they do not read English, so The Art Walk Project website is translatable into multiple different languages directly on the site. There is also a new Art Walk Project store where you can download the maps or purchase fine art prints for displaying. If you are interested in supporting the project, please visit the site, take an art walk, and share the project with people you think might enjoy it.

Visit The Art Walk Project website to learn more and take an art walk for yourself, and find it on Instagram to see some of the public art you’ll see on the routes.