VICTORY FOR PUBLIC ART
How Keith Haring's Ghost forced the city to finally take public art seriously
Score one for Chip Southworth.
In the wake of the local artist/provocateur's arrest on felony charges by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for vandalizing 11 traffic control boxes with homages to the late New York City street artist Keith Haring, and the subsequent outcry, as well as artist Shaun Thurston's recent triumph at One Spark, the city is finally taking public art seriously. Last week, the Cultural Council of Jacksonville and the Downtown Investment Authority launched a campaign, called The Urban Art Façade & Streetscape Program, to fill the urban core with public art. The pilot project, which will roll out Downtown in coming months, marks an attempt to go beyond current code restrictions and facilitate "streetscape enhancements" for utility boxes, murals under the aegis of Duval Walls, and a graffiti wall, along with art on bike racks, street furnishings and Skyway walls.
If the pilot program proves successful, it will expand countywide. "Neighborhoods will determine what will go on utility boxes" and other infrastructural furniture, Cultural Council interim executive director Kerri Stewart says. In other words, this could be just the start of something bigger.
But even if it's not, DIA chairman Oliver Barakat believes that public art will be central to Downtown's branding going forward. It could offer a "market distinction" from suburban enclaves, he says, especially if the art is "distinctive, creative and eclectic." The result, he hopes, will be a "win/win" for both artists and the creative professionals who will determine if Downtown becomes as viable this century as it was in the middle of the last.
"Why not make the environment more attractive?" Barakat asks. "Why not make Downtown more welcoming?"
In the upcoming months, the Cultural Council will put out a call to artists in the five-county region. Each artist who so desires can pitch up to three pieces for a jury panel evaluation. There will be some restrictions, however. The city's Art in Public Places Commission will define the parameters, and prohibit anything that smacks of hate speech, profanity, or drug or porn iconography.
It's that part that doesn't sit well with Lee Harvey, the Jax-native pop-artist and critic-in-exile of the local scene whose work has been a cornerstone of the local underground scene. "Stalin approved of public art — as long as he was the subject," he says from his home in New York City. "I'm not a big fan of what Jacksonville calls ‘public art.' If it is approved by the city, then it becomes less art and more decoration."
That's a tightrope the DIA and Cultural Council will have to navigate: Good art isn't safe, and should provoke as much as it beautifies, but this is city property and a city program, and you'd probably object to some skinhead spray-painting a swastika in your 'hood under the city's auspice.
Concerns about censorship aside, most local artists — and those who value a more vibrant public space — will likely appreciate Downtown's new look.
And none of it would have happened without Southworth's Keith Haring's Ghost project. (In fact, the cover story this magazine published on Southworth earlier this year ["Who's Afraid of Keith Haring's Ghost?" Jeffrey C. Billman, Jan. 15] "caused me to reach out to the Cultural Council and see if Downtown could be a litmus test" for public art, Barakat says.)
"I think the city had the ingredients and some intentions to get to something down the road, but there certainly wasn't a defined program in the works when I started this project," Southworth says. "I think this kicked up the discussion, but more important, it was the public's incredible reaction to my arrest that really shifted the conversation and brought a groundswell of enthusiasm to the subject of street art."