For years, the City of Savannah has been working on the revitalization of Waters Avenue. The next step of the project is Arts on Waters, set to celebrate its launch this Saturday.
Arts on Waters takes place in the shopping center on Waters and 36th. This initiative seeks to perk up the area with curated storefronts designed by local artists on a quarterly basis. The first five projects are released this Saturday, along with a block party full of community resources. (Editor's Note: Due to weather concerns the opening has been moved to Saturday, Nov. 23.)
Public art is having quite a moment right now, primarily in the Starland District, so this city-led initiative is a fantastic way to spread art to other parts of town.
We spoke with Manny Dominguez from the Office of Business Opportunity about the new program.
Tell me how the Arts on Waters program got started.
We’ve been working, as a city, on revitalizing Waters Avenue for some years now. That has included anything from incentives to attract small businesses and development to streetscape improvements—we invested a few million dollars in new sidewalks, street lighting, trees all along our target section of Waters Avenue, new striping on the streets, crosswalks, a lot of different improvements to make it a more attractive but also more walkable area. We’ve also expanded some of our loan programs to make business and job creation easier, and in the corridor we’ve improved zoning and done a lot of different things to layer programs on top of each other to make it more attractive for revitalization.
And this is another tool we’re using: a creative effort to bring more activity, particularly to the area immediately around the shopping center, 36th and Waters. It’s a city-owned property, so since we control it, we can do a little bit more with it than other sections. We thought it was a great opportunity to bring some life and activity to that area.
My department together with our Department of Cultural Resources got together and put together an idea for having some public art, specifically to start off with what are called curated storefronts. The idea is there are a few vacant storefronts in the shopping center. There are three active spaces, and the rest is vacant. What we’ve seen in other cities that worked really well is to curate a storefront.
We put out a call for artists last month and eventually narrowed it down to five artists that will be doing five different installations in each of these storefronts. We’ll kick it off with a big community party. We want to make sure it’s not just window dressing, not just art for art’s sake, but that it involves the community and have resources for the surrounding neighborhoods. We’ll have food trucks, we have dance performances, live music, community resources, arts and crafts for kids, Mercer Medical School will be doing health screenings, we’ll have Farm Truck 912 selling fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a way to bring some activity to the corridor, some vibrancy, but also to provide resources for our community members as well. The hope is to do this on a rotating quarterly basis.
This is the first time we’ve done it, so we weren’t really sure what we would get, but we got over 30 artists submitting proposals for the storefronts. We’ll also be doing a mural on the north side of the building. Obviously that’s going to take a little longer to get community input, make sure it makes sense for the surrounding neighborhoods—a lot has to go into it because it’s much more permanent.
What are your expectations for this event and this program?
Obviously it’s an experiment—we’ll see how it goes. Maybe no one shows up, and that tells us there’s not a huge demand for it. But if it is successful, and I think it will be, it’s really flexible. It’s a flexible space so we can start off with these curated storefronts, but it could grow into a more permanent market type thing where we have a farmers’ market there on a weekend basis, it could grow into a place where we show outdoor movies. It can grow into almost anything.
We’re putting in some new electrical infrastructure so we can throw this event. That means that’s in place now, so anytime we want to do an event out there, we have the electrical stuff all sorted out.
As you know, talk of revitalization can sometimes come with accusations of gentrification, but what I like about this project is that it seems to be a true outreach to the community and not just, as you said, “art for art’s sake.”
It’s something we’ve tried to be really careful with. You never know, with these things, whether we’ve done enough. But we’ve included the neighborhood presidents as early on as we possibly could, we have a local artist, Jerome Meadows, who has been part of the committee from the very beginning and helped us choose the art that’s going to go into the space. We tried to make sure the community itself is involved.
I said from the beginning, if I look around the day of and I see a whole mix of folks from different parts of the city and want to see what it’s like, that’s a big win. I don’t think anybody expects it to be just one group or another. Hopefully, if we do it right, it’ll be a little bit of a mix of folks.
Tell me about the process of choosing the artists.
I know nothing about curating a gallery or art space, so [Director of Cultural Arts] Lissette Garcia Arrogante put them together. The grouping in the first round is a lot more whimsical, light and fun because it’s supposed to be a celebration of the community. The next one will likely be a little heavier. The group we picked for that has heavier themes, but we think hopefully by then we’ll be a little more established. Also, unfortunately, the area is pretty blighted, there’s vacancy and just sort of down right now, so I’d hate for us to add to that too much. We want vibrancy, we want to make sure this is fun and bright and exciting and gets people’s energy up, not down.
What can you tell me about the artists and their projects?
The way we’re doing it is we built false walls that are movable, between three and eight feet from the window to create a backdrop. We’re allowing the artists to do whatever they want between that wall and the window.
Sue Martinez is doing the space like her studio, so she’ll have a painting up on the wall and a puppet that looks like her. Emily Stockwell is doing more of an underwater scene, another sort of 3D type installation. Eoley Mulally is doing a puppet cutout of wood with shadows and stuff like that, another 3D setting.
Llucy Llong does a lot of stuff, but what she’s doing for this space is knitted African masks on pedestals. Shannon Iacino and Phil Caridi do these living wall type things with plants that grow out of it. They had a unique space—their window is gridded, it’s a little different, so we thought they’d be perfect for that.