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.