The Unexpected has brought recognition to Fort Smith from across the world. It brings visitors to the city. It introduces builds a community of art while acclimating the community to art. But make no mistake, the Unexpected is a business, a business of cultural and economic development.
These are the words Claire Kolberg, director of The Unexpected, and Talicia Richardson, executive director of 64.6 Downtown, who spoke on art and intentional activation at the 46th annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism Tuesday (March 3) in Fort Smith.
The Unexpected brings urban and contemporary art, speakers and engagement programs to Arkansas, culminating in a week-long event in downtown Fort Smith. It was the 2017 Henry Award winner for Community Tourism from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and had an estimated global reach of in 2018 of about 5 million people, Kolberg said in a past interview with Talk Business & Politics. Because all their events are nonticketed, it is difficult to measure how many people attend the festival, making an economic impact study difficult, she said.
Tours for The Unexpected are booked throughout the year through the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau and coordinated with 64.6 Downtown, Kolberg said. It shows how art and intentional activation spurs tourism and more.
“It is important to note the trend that where the artists are is where the people end up,” Kolberg said Tuesday’s presentation. “All the fashionable cities and little districts that maybe were not the safest or the most interesting or the most appealing at the time when the artist started moving in, then suddenly this community becomes more attractive community in which to live.”
The Unexpected has been highlighted in “some of the best trade magazines in the world.” It is a focus on social media internationally as well as nationally, she said. It has brought world class art to downtown Fort Smith and it is getting global attention. When organizers decided to “activate their space” and bring The Unexpected to Fort Smith almost six years, nothing like it was being done in Arkansas. It was something new and unique, and the purpose was to get attention and give people a reason to come to Fort Smith, she said.
The next step was to grow it organically, Richardson added.
“Claire’s focus is the art. My next steps are to bring people to these spaces and try to turn them into potential businesses,” Richardson said, citing examples of how the urban and contemporary artwork of The Unexpected have spurred development, including small city park on Garrison Avenue that many did not existed until a fox installation (made of used car parts) was created in it.
Though that installation is no longer in the park, it brought attention – attention that led to another business locating next to the park.
“The fox is now moved, but now there is another business on the opposite side that can now build an outdoor courtyard associated with that particular park. So you can activate it with a simple installation to bring an outdoor living, eating space,” Richardson said.
With The Unexpected going into its sixth year, there is a need to grow and find ways to bring a more meaningful experience to the city, Kolberg said.
“We are looking for deeper engagement, how to dive deeper into the community on a more meaningful personal level,” she said.
This may mean instead of a week-long festival type event, The Unexpected may morph into pop-up events throughout the year, which could be mural projects or other installations, she said.