Blending the arts and policy in Chapel Hill: “Keep the whole city in mind.”

The Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission is drafting an Arts Plan to guide the Town’s decisions in arts planning and funding for the next five years.

The second of three community input sessions took place this past Saturday at the Public Library. The third is scheduled for March 14, 5:30 to 7 p.m., at Flyleaf Books. The draft Plan is scheduled to come before the Town Council by June.

If you haven’t already participated, I hope you’ll plan to come to Flyleaf. If you can’t make that, please consider filling out the online survey. Or talk to me!

Reflecting the evolution of our public arts program from its initial focus on Percent for Art to a broader and more dynamic range of public and cultural arts, the draft plan begins with a solid base of current offerings, including the following:

Festifall, the Live and Local Series, the July 4th fireworks at Kenan Statdium and more; an Artists in Residence program that funds local artists to conduct special projects in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro City School system; the Community Art Project, where an artist or artist team engages a particular community in the creation of a public art piece or event; the Community Clay Studio, a 1500-foot ceramic arts studio offering classes and camps to participants of all ages; the Downtown Art Program which enlivens the downtown environment with art installations and other types of temporary public art; the Juried Exhibitions Series which showcases artwork by established and emerging artists at Chapel Hill Town Hall and the Chapel Hill Public Library; and Sculpture Visions, a temporary, large-scale, outdoor, sculpture exhibition sited throughout public spaces in Chapel Hill.

Earlier this month, Shimmer (see thumbnail photo) brightened a cold night across twenty locations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro with inspiring demonstrations of the art of light.

These programs bring in more than 70,000 people a year–more than the population of Chapel Hill. Opportunities to experience the arts are not hard to find, particularly when the arts scenes in Carrboro and on the UNC campus are included. While the need to extend the collaboration and expand the available facilities is clear, a more fundamental challenge lies in harnessing the energies associated with all of this activity in ways that are more visible and that reach out to engage more of us.

At Saturday’s meeting, discussion points included the need for studio and performance space, a wish to understand the economic impact of the arts, and an interest in promoting arts entrepreneurship. Here I’d like to take a step back to advocate for the intersection of arts policy and public policy writ large, particularly the policy choices we make to further a just community.

Collaboration among arts organizations and government is emerging as a “macro trend,” as noted by Robert Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts:

Across the country, arts organizations are partnering with military and veterans organizations, urban equity programs, and businesses and helping to address homelessness, hunger, and other social issues. In San Jose the technology and science sectors partner with the arts. In Miami, design leaders, business leaders, tourism leaders, even the zoo management, collaborate through the Miami Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs.

This is how we should be working, for as Lynch writes, “No sector can solve the complex challenges that our communities face on its own, and no sector can create a thriving community alone.”

The Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, a public history and community development center in the Northside neighborhood, shows us the way. An oral history and documentary photography project conducted with the help of UNC’s Southern Oral History Program launched the center. These powerful stories and photos reflect the vibrancy and resiliency of the people back to themselves and outward to the larger community, inspiring activism in the face of challenging threats to the fabric of the neighborhood.

The Northside project says we are all connected–across time, and across boundaries of race and economic strata and zoning districts. Such empowering, healing creativity is at the heart of the project recommended by Mindy Thompson Fullilove in Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities.

Her title was inspired by Tom Hanchett’s Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (1998). Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, chronicles how a once racially and economically intermingled city became deeply segregated as a result of Jim Crow policies and ranging from zoning to red-lining to urban renewal. As a result of these conscious policy decisions plus the accelerating economic forces of recent decades, Charlotte is fractured–and the same can be said for virtually all American cities.

Fullilove, a psychiatrist and public health professional as well as an urban planner, charts a path to heal these debilitating divisions. Public and cultural arts are integral to her nine suggestions for “urban restoration”:

  1. Keep the whole city in mind.
  2. Find out what you’re FOR.
  3. Make a mark.
  4. Unpuzzle the fractured space.
  5. Unslum all neighborhoods.
  6. Create meaningful places.
  7. Strengthen the region.
  8. Show solidarity with all life.
  9. Celebrate your accomplishments.

As we create a plan to strengthen the arts in Chapel Hill, let’s heed this medical advice from Dr. Fullilove: A city is like an organism. When part of it is wounded, all of it suffers. Community engagement through the arts can form a powerful antidote to the disfunction and alienation that exist in our own fractured community.

Last year, SpiritHouse, a cultural organizing nonprofit in Durham, sponsored a citywide reading of Urban Alchemy. The video of Fullilove’s talk at the Durham Public Library is available online.

And she is scheduled to give a lecture for the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at UNC on April 16. It’s on my calendar.

Phillips Middle art image

Angela Greene’s 8th grade art students at Phillips Middle School worked with artist Mark Elliott in 2014 on completion of “Three Birds,” a permanent installation. The winning design was by student Tiffany Jackson.

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