Philadelphia has “LOVE Park.”
Chicago has “Cloud Gate” aka “The Bean.”
Scottsdale, Ariz., has “Jack Knife.”
Louisville, Ky., has “The World’s Largest Baseball Bat.”
If Augusta had a city-defining, monumental piece of public art, what would it be?
That’s just one of the questions the city’s new Public Art Master Plan sets out to answer.
The 10-year plan to boost tourism, make the city more appealing to its burgeoning “creative class” of young professionals and create the “sense of place” civic leaders say is lacking in downtown Augusta goes before an Augusta Commission committee next week. It goes before the full commission next month.
The ambitious strategy, among other things, calls for increasing public art installations citywide and providing a more coherent connection among existing pieces. The 58-page document is the last installment in a trilogy of master plans produced by Minnesota-based planning firm Convention, Sports & Leisure International; the other two being the “Events Plan” for Augusta’s Recreation and Parks department and the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau’s tourism-focused “Destination Blueprint.”
All three plans aim to make metro Augusta – to use the increasingly common vernacular of civic leaders – a better place to “live, work and play.”
The arts plan was half funded by the city’s official arts agency, the Greater Augusta Arts Council, whose public art efforts are being spearheaded by Executive Director Brenda Durant, Project Manager Pax Bobrow and Board Member Dennis Skelley.
They and other public art backers, including Scott Thorp, chairman of Augusta University’s Department of Art, say Augusta is deficient in public art offerings compared to peer communities with more vibrant city centers.
“Why would a city want to invest in public art? Competition,” Thorp says. “We’re in competition with tax dollars from other cities – cities with a greater sense of place, cities with a greater narrative. People are spending money in those areas. That’s what it comes down to.”
The master plan notes central business districts in Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., have double and triple, respectively, the number of permanent art installations.
Augusta’s last public art initiative, “Art the Box,” in which 19 local artists were commissioned to embellish 23 traffic signal control cabinets two years ago, was not included in the count because the paintings are considered temporary.
Though the master plan would program the bulk of public art into the central business district – where visitors and residents tend to congregate for cultural experiences – it also includes ideas such as a “sculpture trail” along the Augusta Canal, art exhibits in neighborhood “pocket parks” and the decoration of 25 to 45 bus shelters around town, which could be embellished to reflect the character of the neighborhood they serve.
“We don’t want the public to think that public art is always going to be downtown, so this was our way of really demonstrating that the whole community is going to have public art,” Durant said.
The plan also identifies major Augusta gateways that could benefit from large-scale artwork, including Gordon Highway, River Watch Parkway and Augusta Regional Airport.
“If you put works of significance in those areas that say ‘welcome to Augusta,’ it will say that this is a city that is culturally rich,” says Thorp, one of seven members of the city public art advisory committee and a former professor at Savannah College of Art and Design. “Presently, there’s not that much of a welcome.”
The city already has approved $1 million in special purpose local option sales tax monies to fund the “Public Art Infusion Gateway Beautification projects.” But financing other components of the plan is more nebulous, and would likely involve public-sector contributions or special accounts funded by surcharges on future development.
“I think for it to be successful, it has to be a public-private partnership,” said Skelley, CEO of the Walton Foundation for Independence. “I think you achieve community buy-in when you have more than just the public sector funding it and getting behind it.”
A “sculpture garden,” a major project outlined in the plan, could cost as much as $2 million. The proposed garden would stretch from Springfield Village Park – home of the city’s most prominent piece of public art: the 45-foot-tall stainless-steel “Tower of Aspirations” – across Reynolds Street to the soon-to-be-developed Augusta University Riverfront Campus.
Durant said the concept requires further discussion because land use at the 17-acre campus has been in flux since the state’s announcement to build the 159,000-square-foot Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center there.
“The cyber campus wasn’t the cyber campus when this was being identified,” she said.
Other public art concepts include thematic installations that establish a sense of place, similar to the city of Aiken’s life-sized horse sculpture initiative, “Horseplay,” which reflects the city’s historic status as an equestrian center.
The arts council and Textron Specialized Vehicles have been discussing a functional art concept using stationary golf cars. The custom-decorated vehicles, called “Art Carts,” would provide public seating and bike racks while celebrating the city’s reputation as the “Golf Car Capital of the World.” Metro Augusta is home to the industry’s two biggest golf car companies: Textron’s E-Z-GO and Ingersoll Rand’s Club Car.
Bobrow said the golf cars would feature wayfinding signs and rooftop solar cell panels enabling visitors and residents to charge mobile devices.
“So instead of cows or horses, we have golf cars that have a function. Not everyone in Augusta plays golf, but everyone has a phone they need to charge,” Bobrow said. “The hope is that it’s going to be so awesome that businesses and other entities will want to sponsor these.”
Textron spokesman Brandon Haddock said a prototype was not yet ready for public viewing.
Arts backers hope a by-product of the master plan is that it impresses upon civic leaders the connection between cultural assets and economic development. The nation’s most innovative cities – such as Austin, San Francisco and Seattle – also tend to have robust art and cultural offerings.
Such assets will be crucial to developing metro Augusta as a high-tech hub using the influx of highly skilled cyber professionals moving to the area as part of the national security buildup in and around Fort Gordon, said William Hatcher, director of AU’s master of public administration program.
“Creative professionals want cultural amenities in their communities, such as a diversity of festivals to book readings,” Hatcher wrote in a recent edition of the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times. “They cluster around areas that offer a robust collection of cultural amenities.”
Augusta’s Porter Fleming Foundation has scheduled an educational symposium on public art Oct. 17 featuring Patricia Walsh, public art program manager for Americans for the Arts.
A national study in 2013 by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts said the arts and culture industry accounted for $500 billion – or 3.2 percent – of the nation’s GDP. A study in Rhode Island suggests every $1 spent by arts organizations results in $2.10 in economic spillover through restaurant patronage, hotel reservations and related businesses.
“The arts is an engine for economic development,” Bobrow said. “People love whimsy, things that make life brighter and uplifting, and they will go and seek those things out.”
The economic impact of metro Augusta’s arts community should be a little clearer this year. Last year the Greater Augusta Arts Council for the first time participated in the Americans for the Arts’ national “AEP5” survey, which seeks to quantify the impact arts and culture have on local economies. Preliminary results for Richmond and Columbia counties are expected in June with a full report in November.
Augusta Commissioner Sean Frantom, the commission’s arts council liaison, on Wednesday joined other city officials on a field trip to the metro Atlanta city of Suwanee , where a city-appointed commission encourages developers to voluntarily set aside 1 percent of construction costs to create or fund public art.
While he’s unsure a similar system could be replicated in Augusta, he said he believes it’s time the city’s public art reflects the community’s lofty aspirations.
“We’re already transforming this city through (the Transportation Investment Act) and through cyber,” he said. “As we transform it, we need to make sure art is part of the transformation.”
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.