2019 Artlinks conference focuses on the arts as an economic engine

by Nancy Peevy (npeevy@nwabj.com) 339 views 

Bicicleta Sem Freio’s the “Catira” mural on the side of a building on Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith was part of The Unexpected Project in 2017.

The arts are a powerful economic engine and create “a sense of place” for local communities, Patrick Ralston, director of the Arkansas Arts Council, told artists, arts organizations and community leaders on Monday (Oct. 7). His remarks were part of his organization’s 2019 Artlinks Conference, a statewide, three-day conference at the Graduate Hotel in Fayetteville.

Speakers for the bi-annual event included Steve Clark, CEO and founder of Propak Corporation, and founder of 64.6 Downtown, a nonprofit created to drive cultural and economic development in downtown Fort Smith; Wendy Holmes, senior vice president for Consulting and Strategic Partnerships with Artspace in Minneapolis, Minn.; Charles W. Fluharty, founder and president emeritus of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI); Donald Gensler, art in public places project manager for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission; Kelsey Howard, executive director of Main Street Siloam Springs and Allyn Lord, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale.

Clark told attendees that The Unexpected art festival brought added investment to downtown Fort Smith. The event began in an effort to encourage economic re-development in the downtown area. Clark looked at what was happening in the art community through Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas and around the country and wanted Fort Smith to have a unique “disruptive” art event. The Unexpected was born. Clark gave it the name because he wanted people to have “an unexpected surprise” when they attend.

“You know when you get someplace and it is that, but it’s even better than that? That’s what we wanted this to be,” he said.

The Unexpected art festival brings in renowned artists to create public art – typically large-scale murals on buildings, sculptures and art installations in Fort Smith.

Artists from previous years have included Alexis Diaz, Okuda San Miguel, Guido Van Helten, Jaz, Pastel, Faith 47, Bordalo II and Cyrcle. Their installations can be seen on buildings throughout Fort Smith and the exposure the city gains through the artists’ followers on social media is invaluable, Clark said.

Owners give permission to have their buildings painted, but have no say over what the artist will paint. “because then that becomes a commission,” Clark said. Artists are paid between $5,000 and $15,000 for their work.

Citing an example of economic impact, Clark showed a mural painted on a row of Fort Smith buildings. A bookstore located there has seen a substantial increase in sales because of the visibility created by the mural.

“The Unexpected certainly can’t take all the credit for some of the redevelopment efforts that are going on downtown. But since we started The Unexpected, we’ve had a tremendous amount of development downtown,” Clark said. “We’re a long way from where we need to be, no doubt about it. But we’re a long way from where we were. That’s a real encouragement as we speak to the power of the creative economy.”

This year’s lineup for The Unexpected festival, Oct. 7-12, includes urban and contemporary art, music and speakers. Spanish artist and muralist Okuda San Miguel will complete a 360-degree installation takeover of a home at 1319 G Street. Other artists include London-based artist Camille Walala bringing her style to a service station at Grand Avenue and 11th Street; and Mexico-city based artist Hilda Palafox, also known as Poni, completing a mural on the Bakery Silos.

After Clark, Holmes shared on Artspace, another regional arts initiative which has a mission “to create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and art organizations.” Established in the late 1970’s, the non-profit works to ensure artists can easily access safe, affordable space in which to live and work. The organization currently owns and operates 53 buildings that house more than 1,700 artists in 38 cities across 23 states. Funded through public/private partnerships, the group has offices in Seattle, Denver, New York City and Washington D.C.

Artspace also benefits communities, she said, by reclaiming deteriorating historic structures and underutilized properties; bringing properties back on the tax roll; boosting area property values; fostering safer neighborhoods without causing gentrification; expanding public access to art and attracting artists and businesses to the area.

A feasibility study just completed in Northwest Arkansas showed long term affordability is important for artists because of the high cost of housing in the area. Artists are being displaced because they can’t afford housing, Holmes said. The study also found the need for a variety of types of spaces for a variety of types of artists; the need to connect artists across region so they feel less isolated and the need to connect NWA artists to the nationwide network of artists.

Holmes said her organization’s first NWA project are 50 units of artists’ housing in Bentonville, to be located on the site between The Momentary and the 8th Street Market. Projects in Springdale, Little Rock and North Little Rock are coming soon, she said.

Gensler’s talk, entitled “Urban Corridors, Community Engagement and the Creative Economy,” looked at the history of corridors and walls in urban planning over the centuries as a way to understand how our cities can and should grow today. Corridors are “an area or stretch of land identified by a specific characteristic or purpose,” and are often centers of economic development for the city, he said. Defining the common purpose of a corridor is done by the community, and so the citizens of the community should be involved in the general planning of their cities.

“What I think is important for us as art administrators, as artists, as members of the public, as people who are interested in spaces, is that we think about the work that we’re doing within this larger context, within this larger history and that we place ourselves within that pattern,” Gensler said.

Art should be placed where it would engage people and communities should consider social impact of art on their community, as well as economic impact, he said.

The Arkansas Arts Council, sponsor of the conference, “expands cultural and educational opportunities by investing in Arkansas museums, theaters, symphonies and other providers of artistic programming.”

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