Over the last two weeks, I’ve written about the first two of the three part discussion series about public art in Savannah, moderated by Kristopher Monroe and hosted by the Cultural Art Center. Part one (which you can read about and listen to here) focused on the nuts and bolts of the process of getting approval of a public art project, while part two (linked here) centered on how to fund such an endeavor.
This week on Art on the Air we broadcast the third and final panel, recorded December 12th, which Monroe simply titled "Getting it Done."
The discussion group featured three public art experts who certainly fit the title: internationally-recognized fine artist Jerome Meadows; arts division administrator for Athens-Clarke County (and originator of Savannah’s #art912 program) Stephanie Raines; and W Projects founder Erin Wessling. The latter has helped orchestrate A-Town Get Down as well as the incredibly popular public artworks that have popped up on the side of the Judge Realty building over the years.
Despite their individual successes, however, all three panelists noted that Savannah has a ways to go in showing support for public art, particularly on the city level.
"Unfortunately we just have this block as far as living in a city that doesn’t have a stable support from the city, both financially and just more production-wise, to produce public art," noted Wessling, "The majority of it, if not all of it, is produced through private means and businesses. And when you don’t have that [funding] match between the private sector and what the city is capable of doing, you’re highly restricted."
Meadows, a Savannah local who is currently working on a large-scale memorial to Ed Johnson in Chattanooga, Tenn., noted the stark difference between what he’s experienced elsewhere as compared to Savannah. Specifically, he spoke at length about the African Burying Ground project that he completed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2015. The project began when some local sewer workers discovered a number of coffins that had been paved over years prior, which allowed for a conversation about the town’s unspoken slave history.
"To their credit, rather than pushing back against that, they realized this is something that we need to give ourselves to correcting," said Meadows, "And so, they raised 1.2 million dollars" in three years to completely re-envision the area as a public art project that would both memorialize and educate visitors.
Compare that to the Yamacraw Square Public Art Park here in Savannah that Meadows was commissioned to do, "that took ten years to create [with a budget of $300,000]. At this point I would be embarrassed to take anyone to it. The city has not maintained it."
"I go to Portsmouth, and if I’m sitting at a sidewalk café, people are coming up to me, grabbing my hand, pulling me into them, hugging me and saying, ‘What a wonderful thing you did for my city!’" Meadows recounted excitedly, "There’s the value of public art. Savannah could learn a lot."
Raines agreed, noting that many people haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to public art in a meaningful way.
"Education is an important part of that," she noted, "Encouraging folks to go out and experience public art in other cities and demonstrate how that impacted your visit to that place, and how that could be something meaningful about living here and people that come and visit this city."
Monroe, who put together the discussion series in part to help educate folks on the intricacies of public art, took it a step further.
"I think part of it is there’s just a learning curve," he noted, "And people understanding what public art is and what it can do."
According to Wessling, however, things are moving in the right direction. It’s just going to take time, a little bit of elbow grease on the part of artists, and art advocates who’d like to see more public art.
"You have to work with [the city] in order to create a narrative that may or may not exist at that time," she said, "It may not have been done here in Savannah before and so you have to work with a lot of those ordinances and regulations on making it work. The city of Savannah is incredibly open to it, but it’s an education process that we have to go through together."
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org. Next week is our very special year in review episode where we’ll be highlighting the best that the Savannah visual arts scene had to offer with the 2019 Art on the Air Perry Awards!
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.