Plans for New Art Projects Abound in Augusta’s Growing Economy
When Pax Bobrow, project manager for the Augusta Arts Council, was first hired as an intern for the city’s public art agency three years ago, her job was to handle Arts and Economic Prosperity 5, an extensive nationwide study of the economic impact of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences on local economies throughout the country.
The fifth iteration of the study concluded that total spending by arts audiences in the United States amounted to $102.5 billion in 2015.
That same year, Augusta voters approved a SPLOST 7 referendum, allocating $1 million for the installation of a series of “gateway” monuments throughout the city.
That decision is now coming to fruition.
Three finalists have been selected by the Augusta Arts Council to present a vision for the first monument, which will be installed near the intersection of Riverwatch Parkway and Alexander Drive. Once a proposal is chosen, the artist will have a $225,000 budget for the installation.
For now, the council has remained quiet about the artists and details of any of the proposals. It aims to celebrate the installation in the fall of 2020. Just as important as the monuments themselves, Bobrow said, is the impact they will have on the community.
“What really inspired me is that arts really are an engine for economic prosperity, because people come out of their hiding holes and spend money on the arts,” Bobrow said.
The council’s ongoing effort to enliven the arts scene in Augusta stems from the same conclusion expressed in Arts and Economic Prosperity 5: that local economies benefit significantly from having a thriving arts scene.
According to the study, one-third of attendees of arts-focused festivals and events come from out of town, and they spend twice as much money at those events as locals do ($47.57 per person versus $23.44 per person).
Furthermore, the study found that around two-thirds of nonlocal attendees of arts events said the event was the primary reason they came to town.
“The arts not only get people outside their comfort zone, but they spend money on the local economy,” Bobrow said.
The gateway monuments are far from the only public art projects in the works in the Augusta area.
Take the Golden Blocks Project, a joint effort between the arts council and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History. The project, whose title references a nickname given to the community in its heyday, has been in the works for around six months. It aims to celebrate the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem area, a part of the city that has a rich history of being a place where minorities could thrive.
“That district used to be a husting and bustling black community in the late 1800s,” said Sala Jeter-Allen, an Augusta-based visual artist and former art teacher at Jessye Norman School of the Arts. “The decline started in the late 1960s, and it hung on for a while until the ’80s. There’s a lot of rich history in that area.”
Jeter-Allen (as an artist she goes by Sala Adenike) and three other artists — Sara Cooks, Ashley Gray and Kristie Johnson — are approaching the Golden Blocks project not only as a celebration of area’s culture, but as a new source of life in a neglected community.
“The potential is there, but it’s been drained for several political and economic reasons, and redlining, which is what happened to many African-American communities in America,” Jeter-Allen said. “There are some shining lights in the community, but there are properties that have been ignored for long periods of time. Hopefully, when the Golden Blocks project is finished, it will be an inspiration.”
The project brings together a diverse collection of artists; Gray is ceramic sculptor based in Aiken; Johnson is writing a poem that encompasses the area’s history; Cooks will use her expertise in American sign language interpretation. Together, the artists hope to create something that inspires, educates and brings a sense of pride to the region.
“Artists, religious people, the business community, it’s our turn to help the community thrive once again,” Jeter-Allen said.
One of Jeter-Allen’s biggest inspirations as an artist and former teacher is the potential for art to inspire children.
“My personal opinion is when you start with the babies and expose them to the arts, you have more patrons of the arts,” Jeter-Allen said. “Children who participate in the arts do better in their academics.”
For example, she’s encouraged by what she perceives to be an increase in the number of plays being put on by young people locally, particular the Augusta Junior Players, as well as a new vibrancy in arts programs in the Richmond County schools.
These days, the works that inspires her most are found in the exhibits of student artwork found in places like the Morris Museum and Richmond County Board of Education.
Jeter-Allen has also been encouraged by the remarkable growth of Arts in the Heart, which she sees as a hopeful representation of the city’s growth. The festival has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the municipal building parking lot. It has also become incredibly diverse, celebrating the artistic tradition, influence and beauty of many different cultures.
“The arts council was really instrumental in getting us to Augusta because of Arts in the Heart, small as it was back then,” Jeter-Allen said of her family’s decision to move to Augusta in 1982, just a year after the festival’s inaugural year. “It was one of the deciding factors in making us come to Augusta and deciding we can open a business and making a go of it.
“I would even go so far as to say that we helped make it a more diverse festival. So, you’ll see all kinds of acts and art at the festival. It was a little white and British when it first started. Arts in the Heart is the jewel in the white crown of Augusta.”
Karen Gordon, founder of Garden City Jazz and stage coordinator for the jazz and blues stage at the festival, expects an uptick in local artists’ performing and sharing their work at Arts in the Heart in the coming years.
“There’s always talk that there’s not enough local art at Arts in the Heart,” Gordon said. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Efforts like the Golden Project–one in which a diverse range of artists are working together, with support from the Augusta Arts Council–reflect an approach to local arts that the council has taken more recently: assisting creatives in providing resources as well as business skills to local artists to help them succeed. In addition to her work with Garden City Jazz, Gordon is also an advising artist on the Golden Blocks Project, along with Jeter-Allen, Baruti Tucker and Aminah Walton.
“I believe that the Golden Blocks project is the first step in many….in overall rebuilding and increased interest in the Laney Walker/Bethlehem historic district,” Gordon said.
That isn’t the end of the Augusta Arts Council’s plans for the community; other projects include plans for installations at McBean Community Park and Beacon Station, as well as a temporary sculpture festival (Babrow said increasing the city’s collection of sculptures is a goal of the council going forward) and a continuation of the Art the Box project, based on an invitation for artists to turn local traffic engineering control boxes into canvases as seen on Broad Street.
Yarn installations on trees in the downtown area was one recent project that the council worked on with a group of artists called Hooked on Augusta.
“We worked for months to make sure it was cleared with the city,” Babrow said. “It was worth all the bureaucratic shenanigans.”