by Rob Hessler for Connect Savannah
BACK IN December of 2016, over two hundred artists, art advocates, and art lovers descended upon Savannah’s City Hall.
Then-City Manager Rob Hernandez had proposed a number of cuts to the budget for 2017, including a nearly $200,000 funding decrease for arts and culture.
Fortunately, the collective voices of the Savannah art community were enough to stave off the reduction, and the idea was scrapped. But one has to wonder if the results would have been the same if so many of us hadn’t shown up on their doorstep with the proverbial torches and pitchforks to save the day.
It’s for this reason that we felt that it was important to get a better sense of where the candidates for the upcoming City Council elections stand on the numerous issues facing both the arts and cultural organizations and the individual artists of Savannah.
To that end, Bigger Pie, the Arts Advocacy organization that I operate with my incredible wife Gretchen Hilmers, joined forces with Patrick Kelsey of the Arts and Culture Alliance of Chatham Country, as well as prominent local arts advocate (and Savannah-Chatham Historic Site and Monuments Commission Vice-Chair) Kristopher Monroe, and Location Gallery Director Peter Roberts to craft a Candidate Questionnaire.
In addition, we partnered with over 25 high-profile organizations and individuals as co-signers for the project.
This includes folks from Deep Center, Americans for the Arts, ARC Savannah, Arts Georgia, Sulfur Studios, The Indigos, internationally-recognized artists Jerome Meadows and Suzanne Jackson, and a few of everyone’s favorite “rascals,” Molly Lieberman, Clinton Edminster, and Coco Papy, to name just a few.
In addition to the co-signers, we also distributed a separate survey to artists in the local art community to gather feedback about what they’d like to see happen within the city.
We received over fifty responses and used that data to help frame the questionnaire in a way that addresses many of the concerns that we saw repeated time and time again via this feedback. It’s truly a collective effort.
The survey has been sent out to each of the prospective representatives, including the four mayoral candidates, with expected responses by Oct. 8, a week before the start of early voting.
If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you why it’s important that we have a City Council that prioritizes arts and culture, given that Savannah is home to three colleges with robust arts programs, considering we boast numerous well-attended annual music events from Stopover to the Savannah Music Festival, and seeing as our two monthly visual art walks attract hundreds if not thousands of viewers year-round.
Not to mention the many, many theatre and improv groups that offer potential entertainment every night of the week.
But there are financial reasons that our elected officials should support the arts as well, and reasons why we, as an art community, have both the right and obligation to hold them accountable to our needs.
I’ll admit that despite my position as a very active member of the local art scene, I wasn’t truly aware of the impact that we’ve had on Savannah as a whole until recently.
According to the Americans for the Arts’ Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 study of our area based on the 2015 fiscal year, which you can find on our very own City of Savannah government website, arts and culture accounted for $135.9 million in total economic activity, 4,548 full-time equivalent jobs and, perhaps most importantly, $14.7 million in local and state government revenue (read: taxes).
And, while this is more anecdotal than statistical analysis on my part, it seems pretty clear that arts and culture activity has certainly increased in the four years since this survey was published.
From the visual arts side of things alone, Location Gallery and Laney Contemporary, arguably two of the top art galleries in the city, didn’t even exist when this data was released, nor did up-and-coming spaces like Cedar House Gallery, The Hen House, or The Drawing Room.
The takeaway is that arts and culture create a lot of jobs and put a lot of money into the city coffers, and in return we should expect our City Council to represent the needs of this large and expanding constituency.
Which brings me back to the Candidate Questionnaire.
If you ask anyone who is running for office if they support the arts, you can be certain that they will say yes.
It’s also likely that they’ll tell you about some painting that they own or some show that they’ve gone to see.
And it is my belief that these folks truly believe that doing these activities is, in fact, supporting the arts.
But you and I know that it goes so much further than that. Arts and culture is a different beast, one that requires visionary thinking to promote and grow.
It’s not as if an arts and culture organization can easily quantify the benefits of their investment in the same way as, say, a builder can justify asking the city for $33 million to build a parking garage that will offer a predictable financial return (according to the builder, at least).
So the questionnaire asks how the respondents will help grow and support local arts and culture. Does “Candidate A” support the allowance of vacant city properties to be used by arts organizations and individuals for free or at a minimal cost?
How about the development of an arts and culture overlay district, where it’s easier to create public arts projects and stage cultural events?
Or what about pushing the board of tourism to market Savannah as an art and culture destination?
And, most importantly, does the prospective City Councilor support the creation of a dedicated funding source for the arts, one that doesn’t have to fight for its life every time a budget debate comes up?
More than anything, this questionnaire is looking to find out each Candidate’s plan for the arts for the next four years.
Once we receive these responses—or, equally telling, any lack of response—we’ll be widely distributing the information.
With this feedback we’ll be able to make informed decisions about how we, as artists, art advocates, and art lovers will cast our ballots in November.
And hopefully we’ll be able to avoid the need to grab our (metaphorical) torches and pitchforks and march on City Hall this time around.
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of our new art column, The Art Scene, from the indelible Molly Hayden. The Art Scene will run twice a month in Sunday Arts & Culture.
When I was in first grade, we held a mock presidential election. I was in charge of making signs. I carefully drew “Vote Mondale” in thick democratically-themed blue letters and decorated the outside with rainbows and a bright yellow sun. My teacher nodded at my progress and said: “You’re quite the artist.”
I took it to heart.
A few weeks later, I dressed up as an artist for career day, donning a powder-white jacket, red beret and pencil-thin mustache. I painted mustaches on my fellow classmates and bounced around the classroom singing “Frère Jacques.” And while I’ve grown to understand that your good guy doesn’t always win, and artists aren’t always French dudes, the fact remains: politics and art go hand-in-hand.
This is evident in our city, poetically charged with diverging political views and a
prestigious art college. But the loudest voices in the room are currently coming from a group of local professionals—passionate artists, educators and supporters—who simply want more.
In 1910, a gold dome was placed on top of Savannah’s City Hall. Flanking the dome are two majestic statues casting a watchful eye over the city—one for commerce, one for art. But do they stand on equal ground in the city?
This was the burning question posed by District 4 Alderman hopeful Nick Palumbo last Sunday when a small sample of politicians and artists gathered to discuss the future of public art and arts funding in Savannah.
In the style of summer, the conversation took place during a backyard barbecue at the home of Rob Hessler, artist and co-host of WRUU’s “Art on the Air,” and his partner, community activist, Gretchen Hilmers. Arts and Culture guru, Kristopher Monroe and ARC Savannah Executive Director Gale Steves also helped with the collaboration.
The gathering empowered the crowd to look forward and offer solutions to make Savannah not only an arts destination, but also an entity that supports local artists in a meaningful way.
The consensus, said Hessler, is that people are looking for a top-down approach.
“They feel like the city government doesn’t support artists,” he said. “We need adequate funding to produce large scale art projects or murals that not only showcase the talent in this city, but offer an opportunity to an artist where they aren’t spending their own money to make it happen.”
Matching grants isn’t a solution for most working artists, he added.
Earlier this year, a research team at the financial site SmartAsset branded Savannah the best city for creative professionals, based on a concentration of creative jobs and cost of living.
Further data stated that approximately 110 per 10,000 workers are employed as creative workers, an above average statistic. This doesn’t, however, take into consideration the work-by-day-artist-by-night reality of numerous creatives. As one picnicker lamented: being a full-time artist is a privilege in Savannah.
It’s a dangerous concept to envision a new plan for a historic city so set in its tourist-centric ways, but artists have a need to create and Savannah is the perfect canvas. The money to expand the arts exists and the infrastructure of artists is already in place. There are people who could use art funding in a responsible way to enhance the city. But to move forward, it will take political will. And, according to Hessler, it’s time to take the next step.
“We need policies in place,” he said. “We need enough people on city council with energy and willingness, courage and fortitude to present some of these ideas, to write policy for it, and to move it forward. The art community is asking for this. It’s our responsibility to put forth the ideas of what we want as a collective. From there, all we need is five people on city council to support those ideas to make real change.”
Can we dream of a Savannah with a designated Arts District (Starland, anyone?), or art mural crosswalks leading to rent-controlled studio spaces? What if Savannah incentivized private investment in arts-dedicated spaces or implemented the widespread hotel-motel tax to dedicate tax dollars to the arts. Both have been proven to work in cities across the globe.
From Melbourne, Australia, where large-scale private construction projects are required to incorporate public art, to Houston, Texas and San Diego, Calif. both who successfully fund a vibrant foundation of public art by implementing the hotel-motel tax. Public dollars go a long way in helping a community survive and thrive. Likewise, public art provides a sense of place. It helps create cityscapes that further a city’s identity and image. Harmony lies in the places in-between historic designations and modern art. The balance of commerce and art, projected by our government past can be a present-day truth.
For the record, according to St. Stephen’s Elementary school in Caseyville, Ill., Mondale was president. And while I know that isn’t the reality of the situation, imagining a Savannah rooted in public art is. Voting in council members that support the arts can make real change. Palumbo, along with District 2 candidate Detric Leggett, took the time last Sunday to listen to constituents who care about art, and decidedly made it part of their platforms. They are part of the conversation.
So am I. And, just like my first-grade self, I know my vote matters.
Molly Hayden is a local writer, photographer and problem-solver. This is her column about art. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: In the print edition and first digital edition this column was named The Art Beat. We changed it.
by Will Peebles for Savannah Morning News
Neighbors and artists from around Savannah gathered Sunday afternoon at a Parkside home to discuss what they’d like to see the city do to help Savannah’s art community.
Hosted at Rob Hessler’s home, the neighborhood barbecue featured hotdogs and beer, as well as a forum for folks to chat about the state of Savannah’s art scene. Hessler, who hosts WRUU 107.5′s “Art on the Air” program, said he hoped that the crowd of about 50 would be able to take a deep dive into the issues facing Savannah’s art community.
“Through the radio show, I get the opportunity to meet people from a lot of different, disparate groups that are in the art community, and they’re all from City Market to like Middle Earth area which is Roots Up and Location Gallery to Starland District where Sulfur Studios is to even like Laney Contemporary, even the Jepson Center,” Hessler said. “A lot of these people are doing incredible things, but they’re not connected at all.”
As he flipped hotdogs on his grill, Hessler explained the importance of the art community coming together to decide what they wanted from city officials, especially before the upcoming municipal elections.
“A couple of years ago, over 200 people went downtown to city hall when they threatened to cut the arts budget, and that was incredible,” Hessler said. “They all went and protested, and they didn’t cut the arts budget, and then they all went their separate ways.”
Savannah City Council hopefuls Nick Palumbo and Detric Leggett were in attendance on Sunday as well, which Hessler said provided a good opportunity to talk directly to potential policy makers.
“What do we want to see from our city officials?” Hessler said. “Once we can put all this together, we can start bringing it to the candidates. Let’s actually fight for some good things.”
Greg Davis was there enjoying the food and company on Sunday. He’s a woodworker and sculpturist who has been making art since he was a kid.
He said he would like to see more art-based initiatives for Savannah’s youth.
“There’s a big drop with kids. Growing up, I was part of this art community that fostered me and helped make me who I am today,” Davis said. “I think it’d be great to bring the focus on introducing art to kids, and early development.”
Local artist Becca Cook was there on Sunday as well. Cook makes fiber art and installation art.
She said she would like to see more opportunities for murals and other public art, as well as making public art sales a more accessible process.
“I used to live in Venice Beach, California, and it’s the street artist and performance capitol. There’s every kind of art you can imagine, but Savannah really limits that from happening,” Cook said.
Married couple Kenneth and Theresa Martin sat outside at a table with their fellow artists. Kenneth is an oil painter and Theresa is a doll decorator, and they both run an art program for veterans at the Jepson Center.
Kenneth Martin said he believes in art programs that would make art more accessible to Savannah’s African-American community.
“They’re doing a pretty good job, but connect with persons, for example, the Telfair’s Friends of African American Arts,” Kenneth Martin said. “Connect with them, and connect with local communities and see what they say. Talk about it. Because a lot of the people in the black community aren’t connected with the art community.”