It's Public Art Week at Strong Towns. For the next few days, we'll be discussing the value of art in public life, the impact of public art on our neighborhoods, and how to ensure that public art is created by and for the people, not through a top-down process.
Thomasville is a historic town of about 20,000 people located in southern Georgia that has recently experienced an upsurge in public art and arts-related enterprise, thanks to the community coming together around a unique opportunity.
It all started in 2009 when the town began planning the construction of a new 15-mile multi-use trail. Part of that plan involved building a public amphitheater at the trailhead which would serve as a venue for performance art, festivals and more, as well as being a greenspace open to the public year-round. A stakeholder committee working on the amphitheater, including local arts and preservation organizations, pushed for a community charrette to discuss the idea further.
A Creative District
What came out of that three-day charrette was something that connected the new trail and amphitheater with the broader local economy: a creative district. We spoke with Haile McCollum, a Strong Towns member and graphic designer has been part of this process from the beginning to learn about how the creative district has taken shape. “There are several creative businesses [near the trailhead] and we said, maybe we need to think about this in terms of being a creative arts district,” explains McCollum who has been part of the whole process through her leadership on the board of the Thomasville Center for the Arts and her role as an artist in the community. McCollum owns a building near the site of the amphitheater so she has an intimate knowledge of the neighborhood and its artist leanings.
The creative district concept has propelled the community forward and offered a vision for their town. “Fast forward to now and there are a bunch of creative businesses that have located in that district because of this,” says McCollum. These include an artist in residence program run by the Thomasville Center for the Arts, a yarns and fibers shop, a hair braiding studio, and several clothing stores. There are also several not-strictly-arts-related businesses that have opened recently including a pilates/wellness studio, a travel shop and a frozen yogurt shop, showing that the creative district designation has made impacts far beyond just the arts and offers something for everyone. McCollum says, “The creative district document played a role in helping folks take the leap to an otherwise run-down section of our downtown.”
Testing ideas before moving forward has been a key part of the success of the creative district, especially the amphitheater which has anchored the entire area. “We put on a festival for four years in the area where the amphitheater was going to be built before it was actually [constructed],” says McCollum.
Today, the amphitheater has proven its value as a central community gathering space. The theater was recently the focal point of an annual Thomasville arts festival, Due South.
A Community Mural
Another aspect of the incremental growth of the Thomasville creative district is its use of public art. Prior to last year’s Due South, the Thomasville Center for the Arts wanted to paint a mural near the amphitheater, showcasing the best of Thomasville. Initially, McCollum offered up the exterior of her building as a location for the mural, but the community decided to have a larger conversation about where to place it in a publicly-owned space. McCollum says that bureaucracy slowed the process, but eventually the Center for the Arts came up with a solution: they would paint the mural on panels and hang it as a temporary installation at the entrance to the amphitheater. McCollum designed the mural herself.
“It was really designed as sort of a placemaking mural and people are absolutely taking a picture of it and posting it to social media,” says McCollum. “Our hope is that the public will embrace it so thoroughly that they make it permanent.”
By using one initiative—the new trail under construction—as a catalyst to think about other public uses—an amphitheater, public art and an entire arts district—Thomasville, GA took full advantage of a pivotal community moment. While the amphitheater and trail were the result of substantial outside funding, the mural and arts district concept have happened organically and at little cost to the public. A combination of dedicated local organizations and artists, plus a community that cares about the arts, has made this movement possible.
McCollum has high hopes for the future of public art in her town, especially since she recently became chairperson of the local Planning and Zoning Commission. “Hopefully this will come before Planning and Zoning, and I can form a committee to look into public art,” says McCollum.
Towns large and small can learn from Thomasville's example by involving the whole community in decisionmaking, letting good ideas rise to the top and testing them to see what works, then building on each success to build a stronger town.
Join Haile McCollum and Strong Towns staff for an open slack chat discussing the value of public art and its role in our towns this Friday (May 19) at 11am CT. Head to the #_scheduled-slack-chat channel at 11am on Friday to join us. Get more information about Slack.
(All photos from Haile McCollum, unless otherwise noted)