Photo by Ruta Smith Public art pieces give color to Avondale bars and restaurants

Writings on the Wall

Public art installations are visible throughout Charleston, primarily in the form of murals painted on the facades of privately owned businesses. Driving down Maybank Highway, making your way through Avondale, along the main arteries of town, pops of color emerge from the walls of our urban landscape. Murals by Charleston’s famed Shepard Fairey and local legends David Boatwright and Patch Whisky grace many of our city’s walls. These displays of public artwork resonate with residents and tourists alike. We can thank local businesses — not the city — for bringing these alluring works of art to our community.

Two summers ago, the city of Charleston formed a working group of artists and arts professionals to help develop a public art policy. I was thrilled to serve on this committee. A group of Morehead-Cain Scholars spent hours working with the committee helping us come up with a comprehensive public art policy.

The public art program set out to present artwork in an array of mediums which responded to each project site and the community surrounding it. All selected art projects would inherently enhance the environment which they were placed in and serve as tools to amplify the identity of individual neighborhoods within the city. Selected artwork would benefit the economic development and cultural tourism of these neighborhoods and the city of Charleston, while encouraging engagement and participation by residents through the ideation and installation process.

The plan includes detailed steps for its implementation: hiring a staff member to oversee the program, establishing a community-driven peer review process, taking steps to insure funding, devising measures to protect the artwork and procedures for removal. Not to mention measuring the program’s impact on the tourism economy, which we were sure the city would embrace.

After months of work that included answering many questions and weighing and addressing comments and concerns from the city, the 10-page policy has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve thought a lot about the work we did, especially in 2020 when the art world faced unprecedented challenges. It’s been amazing to see the initiatives local business owners have taken to provide innovative opportunities for artists, but this enormous responsibility shouldn’t rest solely on their shoulders.

The city of Charleston is in a unique position to capitalize on merging its deep historical narrative with art installations. We’re not talking about slapping a handful of neon spray-painted murals on the facade of the City Market. Instead, the city should implement a thoughtful public art policy that would enhance the existing landscape through art and present exciting new opportunities for art education, aesthetic enjoyment and creative ways to experience our city.

Public art serves an important purpose in cities and towns throughout the country. Cities such as Denver, Chattanooga and Charlotte have developed extensive policies that encourage installations of murals, sculptures, frescos and other works of art. These pieces of “impact art” in urban settings enrich everyone’s daily lives. These cities have realized the importance of prioritizing culture by establishing policies to collect and display art — and invest in artists.

Consider what it would be like to take a walking tour of Charleston, exploring the historical alleyways and cobblestone streets, scenic views and lush parks and have the added benefit of taking in compelling pieces of art. This would amount to an entirely new way for locals and visitors to learn about the history and culture of our town. It’s time for the city to help all of us put this plan into motion.

Cara Leepson is executive director at Redux Contemporary Art Center.