Art on the Atlanta BeltLine: Shouldn’t our art match our ambition?

J. Aaron Alderman, "Pathos, Sweet, Lost & Found." Image courtesy the Atlanta BeltLine.
J. Aaron Alderman, "Pathos, Sweet, Lost & Found." Image courtesy the Atlanta BeltLine.

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Written in collaboration by Laura Relyea and Allie Goolrick 

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On any given day on the Atlanta BeltLine, one can find throngs of people jogging, walking and soaking up the sunlight and fresh air. The two-mile trail on Atlanta’s Eastside is buzzing.

Art enthusiasts? It’s hard to say.

Today, I’ve got a friend and his three kids (ages nine, six and four) in tow, and the plan is to set out on a long bike ride from the Krog Street entrance to Piedmont Park and back. But there’s one little hiccup in getting this trip started: before we can even set out, the kids are making a beeline for their favorite “jungle gym,” a 16-foot-tall metal sculpture not far from the pathway’s Krog Street entrance. The sculpture is shaped sort of like a giant jack in the vintage ball-and-jacks game.

As they clamor up and down the sculpture, I try to explain to them that this is not, in fact, a jungle gym, but a piece of public art. (It’s called Sweet Pea, an epoxy-coated steel work by Nathan Pierce.)

“Why is it here?” the nine-year-old asks.

A telling question.

ART TO MATCH OUR AMBITION

As a whole, the Atlanta BeltLine has received worldwide recognition for its incredible scale and vision: The project intends to transform an abandoned 22-mile railroad corridor that loops Atlanta into a series of trails that parallel a streetcar line. When the BeltLine is completed in 2033, the trail will link 45 neighborhoods, create more green space and affordable housing and cost nearly $5 billion.

Public art was not part of the original concept of the BeltLine. In fact, it didn’t come into the equation until years later, when the work plan for the project was already underway. Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta urban planner whose master’s thesis at Georgia Tech was the basis for the BeltLine, is just one of many people in the art and design community who suggests that art’s presence on the BeltLine has room for improvement.  

“The physical scale of the Atlanta BeltLine and the breadth of its program could make the corridor a model for public art in the world,” says Gravel. “But to achieve that, we need to become much more deliberate and intentional about how decisions for art are made.”

The Art on the Atlanta BeltLine program has invested thousands of city dollars and private donations into installing murals, sculptures and other works along the 2.2-mile Eastside corridor section of the BeltLine, which runs from the Krog Street Market to Piedmont Park. In addition to the semi-permanent works that Art on the Atlanta BeltLine commissions from September to November, the space doubles as the host of Atlanta’s largest temporary public art exhibition, also called Art on the Atlanta BeltLine.

But for a project so ambitious, shouldn’t we have art to match?

GETTING ON THE ‘RAILS-TO-TRAILS’ TRAIN

Since the BeltLine broke ground in 2008, cities all over the United States have used the project as a jumping-off place for similar “rails-to-trails” programs, transforming abandoned railroad lines into walkable paths and, in the process, creating more livable urban areas. Green spaces along these paths are a natural fit for public art programming.

In 1999, at the same time that Gravel was advocating to make his ambitious thesis a reality, two young Manhattanites — Joshua David and Robert Hammond — were advocating for a redevelopment of a portion of an unused elevated railway in their neighborhood, New York City’s Lower West Side. The first section of the High Line trail opened in 2009 and two expansions followed. The trail now functions as a 1.45 mile-long linear park, walkway and green space that hosts 5 million visitors annually.

Unlike Atlanta’s BeltLine, art was part of the DNA of the High Line from the beginning. The elevated path runs through the western edge of Chelsea, which has the greatest concentration of art galleries anywhere in the world. Pairing the High Line with art and extending an established arts corridor to the outside landscape made perfect sense.

Still, David and Hammond didn’t realize what a big role public art would play in the success of the High Line.

In an interview with Gotham Magazine, David and Hammond stated that they had initially planned to install one artwork per year — that was, until 2007 when they approached Donald R. Mullen Jr., a former partner at Goldman Sachs. In that same interview, Mullen stated, “The High Line is the artery connecting two early-20th-century neighborhoods to a 21st-century cultural hub. In excess of 400 galleries populate the streets over which the High Line presides. There was not yet a place dedicated to public art. High Line Art was created in response to this need. I have often called the High Line the new museum mile.”

Gregor Turk. "Apparitions: 2013 - 2014" Funded by Atlanta Celebrates Photography and Art on the BeltLine. Image courtesy the artist.
Gregor Turk. “Apparitions: 2013 – 2014” Funded by Atlanta Celebrates Photography and Art on the Atlanta BeltLine. Image courtesy the artist.

THE PURPOSE OF PUBLIC ART

For a new generation, public art has always been a familiar part of Atlanta’s landscape. But it seems like many are unsure of its purpose.

Bill Gignilliat, the president and CEO of ArtsGeorgia, explains that public art, or art that is free to view and in an outdoor public space, has long been a tool with a variety of benefits for a city, from encouraging development and tourism to simply enhancing residents’ experience of a place — and it’s free for everyone to boot.

“It’s the most democratic art form that we have,” says Gignilliat. “And even though it’s the least understood and the least noticed, even if you’re only conscious of it as being part of your landscape, it enhances your landscape.”

In fact, it was public art that helped rally Atlanta around the BeltLine in the first place.

ART BUILT THE BELTLINE

Angel Poventud in 2015 guiding a walk of the BeltLine. Photo by Cameron Adams.
Angel Poventud in 2015 guiding a walk of the BeltLine. Photo by Cameron Adams.

Angel Poventud sits at the Midtown Promenade Starbucks, just yards from the BeltLine crossing Monroe Drive into Piedmont Park.  It’s hard to put a singular title on Poventud: Community activist, absolutely. BeltLine hobbyist, definitely.

From where we are sitting in the window,  we can see families with strollers, joggers with earbuds and bikers crossing Monroe to Piedmont Park. Less than 10 years ago, the strip of stores we’ve met at today backed up to an overgrown, abandoned railroad that few had set foot on in decades. Few, that is, until Poventud.  

As a community activist, Poventud began attending regular planning meetings for the BeltLine project in 2005. He says it wasn’t until late 2009 that it started to become clear to the BeltLine’s inner circle that what was once a huge conceptual project could actually become a reality.

There was just one minor detail to iron out: In five years of planning, no one had actually walked the entire loop.

Poventud doesn’t remember exactly who volunteered him, but he was elected as the perfect man for the job. And that first walk over the abandoned tracks and overgrowth in early 2010 was a huge eye-opener.

“We go down to the Peoplestown neighborhood off of Hill Street, and we step onto the corridor and walk two miles and it’s like magic,” he says. “Like, it’s right here. It’s right in front of our eyes. Thirty thousand cars a day use Ponce, but you don’t know that the thing you go under every day is the BeltLine.”

Despite years of seeing the corridor on paper, even those majorly involved with the BeltLine were in awe of how integral a part of the Poncey-Highland landscape the old rail line really was.

But how would they gain the public’s attention?

Poventud knew that the project needed to improve the visibility of the corridor to gain momentum. Installing official signage proved a little too involved. His solution? An epic guerilla art project. Chris Appleton, the co-founder of community arts organization WonderRoot agreed to help. “I told (Appleton), I’ve got this crazy idea. It’s gonna be bizarre. We might get in trouble. But it could be a lot of fun and it’s gonna make a pretty big statement,” says Poventud.

WonderRoot chipped in $400 for plywood, and one day, volunteers created more than 100 paintings with the word BeltLine scrawled at the bottom. Over the course of a week, the group hit the streets at night and installed two signs at 40 BeltLine crossings all around the city. The mission’s name? “Art Sign the BeltLine.”

They knew the stunt was possibly illegal, yes, but what they didn’t know was what a huge hit it would be. Creative Loafing named it the best public art project of 2009.

That was just the beginning.  

In early 2010, soon after “Art Sign the BeltLine,” Fred Yalouris, the BeltLine’s Director of Design, called Poventud into his office with a question: Is it possible that installing art actually on the corridor, even still in its raw state, would entice people to come out and walk the trail? The Art on the Atlanta BeltLine program was born.

Later that year, Yalouris tapped an enthusiastic young SCAD grad and sculptor, Elan Bunchen, to curate the very first Art on the Atlanta BeltLine temporary exhibit.The team of Bunchen, Yalouris, Poventud, WonderRoot’s Appleton, Liz Coyle and then Eyedrum board member Priscilla Smith, set out on a grassroots effort with a shoestring budget to put together the first exhibit. They crowdfunded from property owners, encouraging them to help make the trail more visible.

RECOGNIZING OUR POTENTIAL

Atlanta BeltLine Art 2105 August 19, 2015 photos by Christopher T Martin
Charlie Smith. “A 24/7 Timestar Lives,” (2015). Photo by Christopher Martin courtesy the Atlanta BeltLine. 

Armed with a camera, my kiddo companions dash off to take pictures of works of art with new eyes. The bridge under North Highland Avenue they delight in scrambling up becomes Kyle Brooks’ cartoonish mural “Faces,” aka “Eyes and Friends or &@^%@$#&^.” We stop for lunch near the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark by “A 24/7 Timestar Lives,” a sculpture by Charlie Smith. The kids insist we tromp into the underbrush to get a better look at Andrew Light’s “Delphinian.”

Fred Yalouris, the design director for Atlanta BeltLine Inc., who oversees the curation of the Art on the Atlanta BeltLine program’s permanent works, says that when it was incorporated into the plan, installing art on the BeltLine was intended to entice people to continue on the trails, as the kids are doing today.

“The whole idea, when we started this six years ago, was to get people to walk on the trails,” says Yalouris. “So we would commission works of art every 400 or 500 yards. People would look at something and say ‘what’s that in the distance?’ and keep walking.”

The program has certainly taken off since then: Since 2010, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine has managed to collect almost 50 semi-permanent (or “continuing”) pieces. If this weekend’s crowds are any indication, these artworks are certainly doing their job to draw visitors.

But the more visible the Art on the Atlanta BeltLine program becomes, the more scrutiny it has invited.

“Atlanta BeltLine has the opportunity to leverage the international visibility, galvanizing vision and multi-billion dollar scale to lift up art and culture in Atlanta,” says WonderRoot co-founder and executive director, Chris Appleton. “In its current form, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine isn’t realizing its full potential to fairly compensate artists and demonstrate to BeltLine users the talent of Atlanta’s emerging and well-established artists.”

“Art on the Atlanta BeltLine has done a tremendous job bringing numerous artists’ projects to the BeltLine, allowing diverse artworks to have a public presence,” says Gregor Turk, a working artist who has not only participated every year in Art on the Atlanta BeltLine but has also worked with the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition. “However, as the BeltLine has grown over the past seven years, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine programming struggles with a case of arrested development. The quality of the work due to inadequate budgets remains a significant shortcoming. Art on the BeltLine is past due in making a strong concerted effort to improve the projects by decreasing the number of artworks, increasing the quality of projects and instilling greater curatorial input.”

“I have been able to participate despite my budget being cut typically by a third for each proposed project because I have brought funding partners with me to fully enable proposed projects,” Turk added. “This includes direct funding from Atlanta Celebrates Photography for Apparitions (2013-14) and Youth Art Connection for Civilizations (2012), redirected funds from my Working Artist Project award from MOCA-GA for Site X (2011) and in-kind support from Trees Atlanta and Atlanta Botanical Garden for Retraction (2015),” Turk states, adding that only his first project with Art on the Atlanta BeltLine, Misinformation (2010), was completed without additional financial assistance, though he did experience budget cuts on that project as well. He went on to cite Sunbelt Rentals and the Atlanta Community Toolbank as helpful resources and in-kind support that Art on the Atlanta BeltLine has provided its artists. When ArtsATL reached out for a budget breakdown for multiple art installations along the BeltLine, representatives from Art on the Atlanta BeltLine were unresponsive.

Brandon Sadler, an artist who has participated with Art on the Atlanta Beltline for four years, says that though he’s been provided with endless social and commercial support from the program, there’s still room for improvement. “The work I’ve created through the program has served as prominent landmarks, social checkpoints, and valuable brand association for the BeltLine. That said, the budget with this program or the money issued, in my opinion, doesn’t match the product that I have contributed over the years and in my career as an artist.”
Brandon Sadler. "How Are You?" under the Virginia Ave bridge by Piedmont Park. Image courtesy the artist.
Brandon Sadler. “How Are You?” Image courtesy the artist.
BUILDING SOMETHING TO LAST

What do you think of when you imagine Paris? New York City? Chicago? Probably a signature piece of public art: the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Cloud Gate (known colloquially as the “Big Bean”).  Although there certainly are various works of public art scattered throughout Atlanta, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify a singular piece that encapsulates and identifies us. (Quick, name five pieces of public art in Atlanta, period).

ARTPAPERS’ editor and artistic director Victoria Camblin views the solution in a change in methodology. “Currently we take a decorative approach to public art. Something will be built and then we drop a sculpture onto it,” she says. “With the BeltLine we have the opportunity to brand artworks into the infrastructure.”

One of the biggest criticisms of Art on the Atlanta BeltLine that Gravel says he hears is that its temporary program should focus on the quality of artworks, rather than quantity.

Certainly, in terms of permanent art, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine has yet to commission an internationally acclaimed work like Cloud Gate, even though it’s clear BeltLine could become prime real estate for a work of that caliber.

According to Gravel, there’s still time to go after a work like that, but it would take some big changes. “It’s not too late to do this because we’re only in the early stages of implementation. But if we want internationally acclaimed artists, we’ll need to organize our efforts around a much more robust process that can fund and deliver that kind of collection,” says Gravel.

Anne Lambert Tracht, a consultant with Metropolitan Public Art Coalition, says when you look at the caliber of the BeltLine project as a whole, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine simply isn’t stacking up.

“Art on the BeltLine presented an interesting opportunity for artists to create [permanent] public work along the BeltLine,” says Tracht. “In the years following, the vision for Art on the BeltLine has not grown up in the same way that the BeltLine has grown up.”

Artist Sadler agrees. “My suggestion, while knowing and understanding that there are a limited amount of funds for programs such as this, is that the number of artists be limited to afford higher, more appropriate funding based on merit and project scale.” He adds, “I believe the BeltLine wants to proactively nurture and grow the arts in Atlanta, but in doing this, the economy of the artists has to be held in higher regard.”

“It would be great if we set aside intentional space for sculpture, or really large works — maybe collaborations between artists and structural designers,” says Camblin. “But when you plan for art to be in there from the ground up you can fund it in a more strategic and beneficial way. That goes for private developers with mixed-use developments or other buildings that could engage with it as well,” she adds, citing playgrounds, benches and lighting each as opportunities for artists, designers and the community to collaborate. “It doesn’t have to be a stand-alone sculpture.

“We need to think about the sustainability of these works. Right now it’s pretty ephemeral and less of an investment because it’s not built to last.”

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