Downtown Fort Smith ‘Festival of Murals’ planned for September

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 309 views 

A “Festival of Murals” project for downtown Fort Smith was unveiled at Tuesday’s (Feb. 17) meeting of the Central Business Improvement District Commission (CBID), with event organizers saying it will boost downtown traffic, and participation of international artists will be a boost to the city’s public relations image.

Members of the CBID also heard from Dennis Snow, director of the Steel Horse Rally, as part of a request for financial support from the CBID for the May 1-2 motorcycle rally in downtown Fort Smith.

John McIntosh, who has helped launch several events and event venues in Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith, is leading the murals project for a newly formed group “64.6 Downtown.” In addition to McIntosh, the murals project team is Claire Kolberg, festival coordinator; Don Lee, head of the art department at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; Galen Hunter with Fort Smith-based MAHG Architects; and Jim Perry, a corporate marketing executive with Fort Smith-based ArcBest.

McIntosh said 64.6 is the number the square miles in Fort Smith. The mission statement of the newly formed organization notes: “64.6 Downtown is committed to the revitalization of downtown Fort Smith and the Riverfront. Downtown is our heart and soul, and a more vibrant and accessible downtown is better for all within the 64.6 square miles of the city.”

The festival is set for Sept. 6-13, with several events – to include artist reception at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, emerging artists show, spoken word event, wine tasting, skateboard park, and sidewalk art collaborations between artists and area school students – to coincide with large murals painted or applied to between five and 10 downtown buildings.

“This will bring activity all week long to downtown Fort Smith,” McIntosh told CBID members.

The first year of the event is being pitched as “The Unexpected Project.” Steve Clark, owner of Propak Logistics, a CBID member and active supporter of the murals effort, said a festival that brings artists in from around the world “is not what you would expect in Fort Smith, which is why it could be a phenomenal success.” He also said the artists being considered are also those who would actively “Tweet out where they are,” which would attract international attention to Fort Smith.

Clark is also investing millions in downtown Fort Smith with the renovation of the historic Freidman-Mincer building – aka, the OTASCO building – in downtown Fort Smith. He plans to move Propak corporate offices to the location when renovation is complete.

Helping find, recruit and coordinate with artists is Charlotte Dutoit, an art curator from France. Dutoit is the founder and curator of Life is Beautiful Festival Art program in Las Vegas, the largest U.S. street art event. For that event, she received the “Mayor’s Public Art Award.” She is also the curator of Rex Romae Gallery that organized pop-up exhibitions in vacant spaces across London. She also manages JustKids, which is a “network of curators, artists, designers and art consultants that creates international art events and gallery shows, designs conceptual spaces for high-profile clients and connect top-tier urban artists with leading global brands.”

McIntosh said the committee will work with Dutoit, building owners and artists to develop ideas for the murals. Maser, an artist from Ireland who has created murals in Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas, was mentioned as a possible artist for the festival. Maser was one of 11 artists to be part of a film that was part of U2’s release of the band’s new album “Songs of Innocence.”

McIntosh said the history and heritage of Fort Smith will not be the only factor driving mural decisions.

“It’s not about the history of Fort Smith, it’s about the promotion of the future of Fort Smith,” McIntosh said, adding that what drives the festival is “the notion of using downtown Fort Smith as a canvas.”

McIntosh provided the following explainer language to the CBID: “The objective and magnitude of the Mural Project is a commitment to an awareness of and appreciation for the visual arts in Fort Smith. The idea is to collectively advance visual art and artistic process by collaboration, cooperation, and support. The plan and action will result in an aesthetically enhanced municipality in concert with the region, state, nation and planet.”

The murals project is working with a first-year budget of between $75,000-$85,000. McIntosh was not asking the CBID for money. In addition to support from Clark, McIntosh said the group is also seeking other private sector financial backing.

Snow, president of The Steel Horse Rally Inc., made a brief presentation about the planned motorcycle rally in downtown Fort Smith, which could see an estimated 5,000 motorcyclists and visitors in the downtown area May 1 and May 2. Outreach efforts to market and advertise the Steel Horse Rally are planned for Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and states bordering Arkansas. The Fort Smith Advertising & Promotion Commission has authorized $2,500 to help with such outreach.

Snow said he is confident the event will grow beyond 5,000 visitors in the coming years.

“The days of James Dean and the Wild Ones are over. The men and women that ride (today) have a large disposable income,” Snow said.

CBID Chairman Richard Griffin praised the event and encouraged the commission to help support the rally’s launch. CBID members agreed to pay up to $5,000 for marketing efforts to promote the rally.