Leepson: Charleston should invest in public art policies to benefit local culture

Writings on the wall

Public art installations can be seen throughout Charleston, mostly in the form of murals painted on the facades of private businesses. As you descend Maybank Highway, through Avondale, along the city’s main arteries, pops of color emerge from the walls of our cityscape. Murals of Charleston’s famous Shepard Fairey and local legends David Boatwright and Patch Whiskey adorn many of our city’s walls. These public art exhibitions resonate with residents and tourists alike. We can thank the local businesses – not the city – for bringing these alluring works of art to our community.

Two summers ago, the City of Charleston formed a task force of artists and arts professionals to help develop a public art policy. I was delighted to serve on this committee. A group of Morehead-Cain fellows spent hours working with the committee to help us develop a comprehensive public art policy.

The public art program aimed to showcase works of art in a range of mediums that catered to each project site and the community around it. All of the selected art projects would inherently improve the environment in which they were placed and serve as tools to amplify the identity of individual city neighborhoods. The selected works of art would benefit the economic development and cultural tourism of these neighborhoods and the city of Charleston, while encouraging the engagement and participation of residents throughout the ideation and settlement process.

The plan includes detailed steps for its implementation: hire a staff member to oversee the program, establish a community-based peer review process, take steps to secure funding, design measures to protect the artwork and removal procedures. Not to mention measuring the impact of the program on the tourist economy, which we were sure the city would adhere to.

After months of work of answering numerous questions and assessing and addressing the city’s comments and concerns, the 10-page policy has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

The city of Charleston is in a unique position to capitalize on the fusion of its deep historical narrative with art installations. We’re not talking about slapping a handful of neon 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 arts education, aesthetic enjoyment, and creative ways to experience our city.

Public art serves an important purpose in towns and villages across the country. Cities like Denver, Chattanooga, and Charlotte have developed extensive policies that encourage installations of murals, sculptures, frescoes, and other works of art. These works of “impact art” in an urban environment enrich everyone’s daily life. These cities have realized the importance of prioritizing culture by establishing policies for collecting and exhibiting works of art – and investing in artists.

Consider what it would be like to take a Charleston walking tour, explore historic lanes and cobblestone streets, scenic views and lush parks, and have the added benefit of admiring fascinating works of art. It would represent a whole new way for locals and visitors to experience the history and culture of our city. It is time for the city to help us all implement this plan.

Cara Leepson is Executive Director of the Redux Contemporary Art Center.