Romania’s Petrilla mine shows how art can be a catalyst in former mining communities

After Coal author and director Tom Hansell recently traveled to Romania to participate in the Appalachians / Carpathians: Mountains Apart, People Connected conference. Participants explored the theme of post-industrial development in mountain communities. Here is his report:

Photographer Gabriel Amza , who has documented the decline of coal in Romania’s Jiu Valley and I collaborated on a presentation that explored the role of arts in former coal mining communities. After our presentation, we visited the Petrilla mine, which employed approximately 20,000 workers at its peak, before closing in 2015. Some miners were transferred to other mines, but many lost their jobs.

Local officials believed the best path forward was to bulldoze the mine site and leave a clean, green field. However a strong local movement emerged to save the mine site. Former mine engineer and artist Ion Barbu (pictured below) helped lead an art based campaign to preserve the mine. He engaged hundreds of people in a series of street performances and visual art projects that raised awareness of the architectural and aesthetic value of the mine complex. Eventually, his efforts won over the miners’ union and other important organizations. Today, most of the mine still stands and funds are being raised for preservation. In the meantime Barbu has turned the abandoned pump house into a community center for theater performances and participatory art projects that highlight the region’s unique heritage and provide hope for a post coal future.

Although the first step of preservation is complete, many former miners and other community members still struggle to make ends meet. Still, the story of Petrilla demonstrates how the arts can help former mining communities identify local resources. Arts can amplify local voices and build political power that leads to new opportunities for these former mining towns.

Ion Barbu’s work to save the Petrilla mine was documented by filmmaker Andrei Dascalescu’s film Planeta Petrilla