Ad legend Berny Brownstein shares his art with Philadelphia

Berny Brownstein in front of his Philadelphia mural

Art has always been at the center of Berny Brownstein’s world. The Philadelphia native fell in love with art early in first grade, winning a poster contest for a “flower week” at the time. From there, teachers made it a point to encourage Brownstein in his artistic endeavors, leading to a scholarship at the prestigious Simon Gratz High school in Philadelphia and then to the University of the Arts, after which he began his career as an art director and then founded his iconic Philadelphia agency Brownstein Group in 1964.

After a near 60-year career, including an important stop at the first ad agency in the US, N.W. Ayer, “The Dean of Philadelphia Advertising” is going big on the streets of Philly with his own mural. Thanks to the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (Mural Arts), the nation’s largest public art program, the “King of Broad Street” had one of his works of art made into a gorgeous two-story mural on the side of a building at 23rd and Sansom streets. “Wild Tuscan Lilies” was unveiled on July 21 to a beaming Brownstein and his family.

“I went over to see it and I turned the corner, it absolutely straightened me up. It took my breath away. To see that, that big, it was sort of an out of mind experience,” said Brownstein of the mural, which was taken from a lushly colored painting he did on a visit to Tuscany, showcasing wild lilies, olive groves and rolling Tuscan hills. “The compliments have not stopped coming in and the congratulations have not stopped coming in. People just loved it. It's not like I put up a big abstract, where people say, ‘Oh, well. I don't understand it.’ It was this beautiful Tuscan scene and everybody loved it.”

The mural came about thanks to an effort by Brownstein’s son, Marc, the CEO and President of the Brownstein Group.

“I never, ever thought about any of my work being a mural. $500 started my life, and I'm going to art school and I still paint and draw and so forth. I've been at galleries. My work is in many, many homes of family and friends and patrons. Then suddenly, Marc, about four years ago, thought of a gift from a son to father, one of his dad's paintings. It was a mural and he started the ball rolling,” said Berny Brownstein.

The original painting was inspired by another gift, this time from his wife: a trip to Italy.

“Back in the middle ’90s my wife, who's no longer with us, gave me a gift for my 60th birthday. What else would an artist want but to paint the hills of Tuscany? That's what she gave me. I painted there for about 18 days and came back with a lovely collection of stuff. One of these big oils that I did there, they turned into the mural,” he said.

“Berny has been at the center of the arts and business community in Philadelphia for nearly 60 years,” said Marc Brownstein. “For those of us that have been lucky enough to work with him, we have seen first hand how he can bring a campaign, canvas or tagline to life. And now, thanks to the Mural Arts Program, Berny can share his artistic gift and vision with a whole new audience.”

The other thing that helped set Brownstein’s mural in motion was the Brownstein Group’s ties with Mural Arts.

“We have been involved with them for a long time because we believe in what they're doing. They used to be called the anti-graffiti network. Jane Golden, (founder and executive director of Mural Arts), it was her concept to get rid of graffiti with beauty. It seems that the graffiti people, I call them graffiti rats, they sneak out at night when nobody sees them and screw everything up and make ugly and then crawl back into their sewers again. Yet, they won't touch a mural. They will not deface a mural,” said Brownstein.

City of Murals

Thanks in large part to the efforts by Golden and the Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia has become internationally recognized as the “City of Murals.” Hundreds upon hundreds of public murals accent buildings around the city, highlighting everything from local sports icons (Dr. J) to peace and unity and social issues, to abstracts, colorful collages and inspirational messages. Mural Arts has created nearly 4,000 murals since 1984. The project was even recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning, highlighting Golden and her vision of art as transformation.

Each community helps choose its mural’s subject. Then an experienced artist comes in and helps find a group of workers, often from the neighborhood, and some from youth arts programs, to bring the vision to life.

“What they do now is they scan it and they have a process of printing it on vinyl and they put it up like wallpaper. Then, the mural arts people, the artists, they still have those, those who install it, they go and they touch up the seams with the actual paint out of the colors where the vinyl meets. It's a perfect reproduction. Every little nuance that I put into the painting is up there. I was thrilled,” said Brownstein.

The program has helped transform lives through art, through after school programs and prison programs, as well as bringing neighborhoods together through communal efforts.

Brownstein is honored to be a part of it all.

“I’ve always said that life is about reaching people and motivating them and I have tried to do that in my career as both an ad man and an artist,” he said. “For the past decade I have been honored to partner with the Mural Arts program on a business level, helping them to reach hundreds of thousands of people and motivate them to be conduits for change. And now that one of my personal works of art will be on display in my hometown for all to enjoy…well that’s something that’s extremely special to me.”

Brownstein went on to say how humbled and pleased he was to have his artwork unveiled, and how happy he was that the agency received recognition, especially considering his advertising history in the city, first with N.W. Ayer, then with the Brownstein Group, which he founded in 1964. Though retired, he still has opinions on the industry. In the face of all the profound digital change, he stills sees creativity leading the charge.

“Things have changed in the industry but, not philosophically as far as I'm concerned. Yes, computers now are the big tool. Branding is the key word everybody needs. Research is big and public relations continues to be vital in every campaign. If you stop and think about the last commercial you saw that made you smile or billboard that made you laugh or commercial that made you do something, it really does still come down to the geniuses who come up with this stuff,” he said.

“Everybody waits for the commercials on the Super Bowl. Why? Because people admire the creativity and the genius of it. They want to laugh or they want to be motivated. To me, it still comes down to the creative process,” he said. And, of course, he would know, since he helped develop campaigns for corporate giants such as Zenith, United Airlines, Chrysler Corporation, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and others. But Brownstein has always been an artist at heart, showcasing many of his paintings and talents around Philadelphia.

For their part, the Mural Arts Program is pleased to have such an icon of the city be a part of the public art works.

“We are delighted to have worked with the extraordinary artist and creative thinker Berny Brownstein on his first mural,” said Golden. “Mural Arts believes deeply that all people deserve access to world-class art, and we are thrilled that this wonderful piece of his work will be displayed in Center City for all to enjoy."

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