Highly visible and often popular, public art has become an increasingly common sight in South Carolina’s cities and towns – adding life, color and energy to communities.
In those cities now championing public art, the question of whether or not to pursue it has been replaced with more logistical questions — how can the city navigate everything that goes into soliciting, constructing, maintaining and marketing the artwork?
In the City of Greenville, where there are more than 180 pieces of public art, the city has developed a formal application and review process.
“It’s all about creative place making — everyone coming together to shape the character of an area and give it character,” said Tracy Ramseur, Greenville’s cultural arts manager. “When somebody comes to Greenville they say, ‘Oh my gosh, your public art is amazing and it’s different from other cities.’ That’s something we pride ourselves on.”
It’s also something that takes work and commitment. It can start with the city’s planning and zoning staff making sure that “public art” is a term they use when meeting with developers or others investing in the community.
“If you asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I would tell you public art was not in their regular planning language. They would talk about where to put a tree or a driveway,” Ramseur said. “Now, our planning staff sees the value in public art. Before they go to public meetings with the design review board or the planning commission, they’ll say to people, ‘You’ve got a plaza here, have you thought about a sculpture?’ or ‘You’ve got a wall, have you thought about a mural or some sort of artistic element?’ It’s becoming more common vernacular in the planning world. And fortunately, our development community is very receptive to that. They’re saying, ‘That’s a great idea, I hadn’t thought of that.’”
Public art in Greenville can come in a number of forms, ranging from the city commissioning a piece of artwork for a public spot, a developer or property owner wanting to place artwork on their land or an organization or nonprofit hoping to honor someone through art.
And the city backs up its commitment. Since 2013, city council has appropriated $75,000 to $150,000 a year for public art, with the money coming from accommodations tax revenue. The council also appoints a nine-person advisory board of people involved personally or professionally in visual art. The group meets monthly to evaluate applications and make recommendations to the city.
“What’s really great about these commissioners is they get interested in the project. I’ll assign one to work with an applicant, so they have a champion to help them along the way,” Ramseur said.
There are numerous steps from the time an artist or group approaches the city with an idea to the time an artist is selected, the work is complete and the project is installed. Ultimately, the city takes ownership of the artwork, since it has the ability to maintain and insure the piece.
Ramseur also stressed the importance of keeping up with the inventory and maintenance. She keeps a detailed spreadsheet with everything about the artwork – the title, artist name, year installed, medium, cost and maintenance schedule.
“One thing I like to tell people in cities that are just starting off: It’s great when you add to your collection, but those things need to be managed,” she said “To be set up for success, you can’t just have a budget for acquiring, you have to have budget to maintain [the artwork]. And you have to keep track of it.”
In Sumter, the city’s downtown was home to one mural, painted in 1980 by Columbia artist Blue Sky. As the downtown revitalization effort expanded, there was a desire to add more public art.
“It was a big piece that was missing,” said Leigh Newman, Sumter’s downtown development coordinator. “All downtowns need art. It’s a big part of revitalization.”
The city’s Main Street Society chose to add fiberglass butterflies painted by artists and placed in downtown.
“Downtown has been growing and evolving and emerging since 2000 when this revitalization began. I think the butterfly is very symbolic of what’s going on downtown,” Newman said.
The city started with seven butterflies to hang from light poles in downtown. It secured sponsors who paid $500 for each butterfly, and put out a call for Sumter County artists.
“We had just enough artists for the first seven. On the second round, we had to turn away artists,” she said. “People had seen what we had done and said, ‘Oh, we want to be a part of this.’ Artists in this town have blown us away with their talent and ideas.”
The 14 downtown butterflies have been a big hit with residents and visitors, and the city is working on a free map available for visitors to highlight the artists and the butterfly locations.
Sumter also is home to several new murals, including three downtown and a couple more in South Sumter, one of the city’s original communities. One of the murals off Main Street features an underwater scene from Swan Lake, while the Sumter County Museum wall is home to a mural of local landmarks and historical figures.
Sumter County’s cultural director approached the city’s downtown development organization to join an application for a grant from the Central Carolina Community Foundation to create the murals, Newman said. Funding also came from the Main Street Society, Sumter County Museum, the Bank of Clarendon, Sumter Economic Development and the Sumter County Cultural Commission.
“The hardest thing about art in a community is deciding what kind of art you want,” Newman said. “With the murals, we didn’t want anything polarizing. We wanted something representative of Sumter that was just pretty and engaging and would get people talking.”
Newman’s advice to other towns is to be transparent about how the projects are financed.
“As much as people love art, they don’t want to think their tax money is being used to pay for it,” she said. “From the start, we made sure people knew this is being paid for by private funds; this is in no way being paid for by the City of Sumter. It helps get a lot more people on board when they realize we are doing something nice for downtown and it’s not costing them anything.”
In Rock Hill, one of the goals of the Knowledge Park Action Plan, the city’s downtown revitalization strategy, was to create amenities that would make spaces memorable. That included adding murals by local, regional and national artists, said Lisa Brown, Rock Hill’s director of economic and urban development.
What is now known as “the Mural Mile” was born as a way to use public art to revitalize underutilized spaces, encourage community dialogue and raise the city’s art tourism profile.
“The Mural Mile has become synonymous with public art in Rock Hill,” Brown said. “The whole purpose of the mural effort was to create a wayfinding opportunity through eight to 10 murals that were supported through public/private partnerships.”
The mural project was spearheaded by the Old Town Association, a resident group committed to the redevelopment of downtown Rock Hill.
“Due to its nonprofit status, the Old Town Association could apply for grants, primarily through the [National Endowment for the Arts],” she said. “The OTA worked collaboratively with the city and the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation’s Quality of Life Committee.”
The process for creating murals is spelled out in a 10-page guide that includes everything from how to identify a mural site, working with a mural coordinator, choosing an artist, permitting and other issues.
Brown said there has been extensive coverage of the Mural Mile in media outlets, cultural guides, social media and other sources. The city is in the process of adding QR codes to each mural offering additional information, and there is discussion about additional ways to share the work, including art-specific maps and tours.
For those looking to add or manage murals in their city, here’s Brown’s advice: Look to collaborative public-private partnerships for broad support; apply early and often for grant funding; experienced artists are worth the cost; be sure to include design requirements in the process; require high-quality external paint and an anti-graffiti sealer; and make sure the private property owners know they are responsible for the maintenance.