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Creating a Market for Art

Kroger murals connect business to artists and neighborhoods
Artist Ashley Cathey with her mural at the Kroger location on Broadway in Louisville.
Artist Ashley Cathey with her mural at the Kroger location on Broadway in Louisville.

When Kroger reopened its store on Lexington’s Euclid Avenue in 2015 with three murals created by Lexington artists, the grocery chain’s CEO, Rodney McMullen, posed the question, “Why aren’t we doing (murals) in all our stores?”

So, they did.

The Euclid location’s reopening was a reopening in the academic sense. There had been a store there before, but it was torn down to make way for the new store, a revolutionary space that included a parking lot on the roof, but that was not it’s only unique feature. At a cost of $45,000, Kroger commissioned three murals – two interior murals for $10,000 each and an exterior one for $25,000 – to adorn the Euclid Avenue store.

Kroger worked with LexArts to issue the call to artists and select finalists for the murals, and when the mural program began in Louisville, Kroger engaged Louisville Visual Art. Using those partnerships as models has been crucial, said Tim McGurk, Kroger regional director of corporate affairs, especially since the mural program has expanded across 35 states.

“The Kroger team is very good at opening and operating grocery stores,” McGurk said. “We rely, however, on local arts organizations to help us connect with artists and to make sure the artwork reflects the neighborhood and community. We need their expertise.”

One important feature of the murals is what observers will not see in the murals, McGurk said.

“Something that was very important to us in the design of these murals was that they never have a Kroger logo in them or a reference to our stores,” he said. “We wanted to be sure that they are never perceived as advertisement.”

In Kentucky, there are now 35 murals in 28 stores, with more planned in the future. Interest among artists has grown as well.

“We’ve watched the numbers grow from a dozen artists for the first couple of murals we commissioned to 40, 50 or 60 artists for murals today,” McGurk said. “Our stores see an average of 20,000 to 30,000 customers each week, so they realize the exposure their work will gain by being on display. They also realize the commissions we give are pretty generous, and we’re proud of that.”

Liz Swanson has done murals at two Lexington Kroger stores, Euclid Avenue and Leestown Road. Swanson, a University of Kentucky associate professor of architecture, has also been commissioned to complete a mural at the newly renamed Kroger Field football stadium. That mural will be unveiled Nov. 25 as UK closes its season against the University of Louisville.

“I’ve found one of the wonderful things working with Kroger has been that they’ve given us, as artists, such creative freedom,” Swanson said. “I have submitted proposals to them, and I’ve felt, as an artist, that they respect my perspective. They know they’re hiring me to do something that I do well.”

This mural initiative has risen to the level of such importance that Kroger has hired an art project manager, Bo Wachendorf, to help curate the murals.

“I’m working with over 30 local arts organizations to find artists who not only have experience with large-scale graphic and mural work, but who have deep ties to their cities and want to be part of this unique opportunity,” Wachendorf said in an article that appears on the company’s website krogerstories.com. “Not every city or suburb is lucky enough to have public art, so I’m proud to be able to help artists find work, and to have that work improve the experience our customers have with our stores.”

McGurk said that other companies that are on the fence about commissioning original art for their business locations should consider what it has meant for Kroger.

“In our opinion, this has proven to be one of the most powerful ways to connect with your local communities and local neighborhoods,” he said. “These murals can add a sense of pride for your associates and your customers.”

Tom Musgrave is communications director of the Kentucky Arts Council.