When Art Goes Public


A few years ago, late on a weekend night, I was standing on the patio of a friend’s loft in downtown Birmingham. I looked out onto the city below and was struck by the vast sea of gray. Where was the color? Where was the art? Why did it look so bland? The scene below was one of pure utilitarianism and functionality, and the lack of aesthetic beauty was troubling to me.

There are plenty of new and wonderful restaurants and bars and coffee shops and venues, all of which contribute a great deal to our city’s cultural life. But for all the progress I see, it still feels like we’re missing something. How can we harness out collective energy into something truly magical and new?

Around the country, and indeed, around the world, cities are (and have been) investing in public art initiatives. Public art is different from art in, say, a museum for one very obvious reason: it’s outside, in public. Public art, especially in places that have developed robust public arts projects, give character to a city. Public art often expresses community values, it enhances an environment, brings vibrancy to a neighborhood and, most importantly, it is for everyone.

The Knight Foundation’s “Soul of the Community” initiative recently surveyed 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place—its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than education, safety and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.” As Birmingham seeks to attract new talent and retain the talent we currently have, it is critical to consider what role the aesthetics of our place plays.

That consideration might end up looking like Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has turned the City of Brotherly Love into a rich display of color, community pride and vibrant aesthetics during its 30 years of existence. It might look like a “Percent for Art” program, a public policy that many cities have adopted where a determined percentage of a development’s total project budget is set aside for public art. These policies also address how the money is to be spent on the acquisition and commissioning of public artworks.

Of course, public art is more than just pretty pictures. It can have a profound, transformative impact on a community. In fact, the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan, the document which shapes the future policy of our city, has outlined a number of national grant-making foundations, such as “ArtPlace America,” as avenues to pursue for community renewal strategies. ArtPlace is a 10-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions. Its goal is to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical and economic fabric of communities. ArtPlace focuses its work on “creative placemaking,” which describes projects in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development.

Workforce Development

I hear lots of conversations about crime in Birmingham, about what our kids (and I use the term “our kids” because I believe that what Birmingham City School students do with their lives invariably affects all of us who live and work in the city) are doing after school, and during the summer. These conversations usually turn to the opportunities we can provide to our kids and the workforce development programs we have available to them. What’s missing from most all of these conversations I hear is the option of pursuing the creative arts as a legitimate career path.

The world we’re preparing our kids for looks a lot different than the world even my generation grew up in. You’re now essentially born holding a device of some sort, and snapchatting remarkably artistic snapchats before hitting puberty. There are certain skills that young people possess now that might not translate to an interest in HVAC repair or carpentry (or other “traditional” trades), but that technological and creative proficiency certainly could translate into a lucrative and fulfilling career in the advertising industry.

I just spoke about this matter with my friend, Desmond Wilson, creative director for the Birmingham City Council, co-chair of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Cultural Arts Transition Team Committee, and one of the most talented graphic designers and videographers I know.

Wilson didn’t even hear the words “graphic design” until his sophomore year of college. Now, he’s built a successful business and forged his own career in the span of less than 10 years as a photographer, videographer, and graphic designer. He did it the hard way, without any mentors, and certainly without mentors who looked like him. Nationwide, African-Americans make up only 5.8 percent of those employed in the advertising industry. I don’t have a concrete number, but based on anecdotal evidence, I can say pretty confidently that the demographics of our advertising industry couldn’t be further from the demographics of the city itself.

Now, I don’t want to condemn anyone to a life stuck in an office building. The creative industries lend themselves to freelance work quite naturally, which is all the more reason to start exposing our kids to the possibility that their propensity for making memes on their phones could actually be quite useful.

As Wilson pointed out to me, the tools needed to work in the creative industries are getting more and more accessible. The quality of footage that smartphones can shoot is outstanding. Wilson is also on the board of a non-profit organization called Kuumba Community Art (Kuumba is the Swahili word for “creativity”) that I believe deserves recognition, praise, and support. Kuumba’s  current program, the Teen Design Academy, provides early education and job training in graphic design, advertising and related fields in an effort to diversify the local and national design communities.

I hope we can come together as a city to truly support the arts, to set our kids up for wildly successful careers, and be proud of the aesthetic beauty we’ve come together to create.

One Response to “When Art Goes Public”

  1. Cynthia Woodfin-Kellum says:

    This is a great article. I’ve the personal opportunity to meet this young artist Dez Wilson and witness first hand some of creativity. The art he created and captured during the 2017 Birmingham Mayoral Inauguration. My goodness his work is phenomenal. I’m hoping the artistry Mr. Wilson has learned will be taught earlier and freely to our children today.

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