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How a Community Can Become a Work of Art Skip to content

 

How a Community Can Become a Work of Art

Downtown murals, exhibitions and events are creatively transforming spaces and places

Communities in need of an economic, relevancy and vibrancy boost are garnering attention, tourists and community engagement through the placemaking powers of art and creativity. Here are five examples: 

Charleston, West Virginia

FestivALL in Charleston West Virginia

Photo by Chase Henderson (as used in Where We Live, published by AARP in 2018)

Artist and mask-maker Jude Binder, known as the FestiVALL Princess, does not speak when wearing what has become her iconic event costume.


Every summer since 2005, people have streamed into Charleston, West Virginia’s capital city, for FestivALL, an eclectic summer festival of music, theater, dance, exhibitions and interactive arts. Mayor Danny Jones, who has long championed the arts as an engine to drive growth, helped establish the festival, which now lasts 10 days and hosts additional events year-round.

On average, FestivALL’s audience is nearly 50,000 people annually, with more than 300 performances across 50 venues. Nearly 100 community arts groups take part, and visitors book more than 3,000 hotel room nights. Organizers estimate the festival has at least a $1.5 million impact on the local economy each year.

The festival’s success has spurred other initiatives in Charleston, including FestivALL Fall, an October mini-festival during which the “City Becomes a Work of Art.” A website features maps and walking tours of the city’s four downtown arts districts.

Another Charleston charm is Mountain Stage, a weekly NPR music program that has presented live performances from Charleston for more than three decades. Larry Groce, FestivALL founder and former director, is the host.

Arts and entertainment activities have spurred development by increasing the walkability and vibrancy of Charleston’s streets and turning the city into a hub for fun and culture in the state and region.

Torrington, Connecticut

Danielle Mailer FishTales mural in Torrington Connecticut

Photo courtesy Danielle Mailer (as used in Where We Live, published by AARP in 2018)

Guided by art teacher Danielle Mailer (daughter of the novelist Norman Mailer), a bare building wall that faces the river was transformed into Project: FishTales, a vibrant 186-foot-wide installation featuring fanciful trout in dazzling neon hues.


Located on the Naugatuck River in northwestern Connecticut, Torrington was once a thriving mill town. From woolens and brass in the nineteenth century to bicycle parts and ball bearings in the next, the city provided a steady living for those employed in its factories.

A flood badly damaged the city center in 1955. As economic downturns and other changes followed, manufacturing jobs began to disappear, leaving factory sites vacant. The Artist Relocation Program seeks to stimulate the local economy by encouraging artists to occupy Torrington homes and commercial spaces where they can both live and work.

For years, Torrington ignored the river running through it and provided little incentive for people to visit and enjoy the Naugatuck. That’s changing, and art is playing its part.

Torrington city planner Martin Connor marshaled support for the zoning changes that made the live-work occupancies possible. The city’s location nearly halfway between New York City and Boston, and adjacent to well-heeled Connecticut suburbs, is a selling point for visual artists seeking a place to reside, create and connect with savvy collectors. 

When residents and visitors stroll around the city looking in gallery and shop windows and attending events, they often seek out a restaurant for lunch or dinner, or they’ll pop into a coffee shop. Artists, Connor says, help “put feet on the street.” 

Fort Smith, Arkansas

Grain Towers at the OK Foods feed mill in Fort Smith Arkansas

Photo by Raymesh Cintron for Justkids (as used in Where We Live, published by AARP in 2018)

Grain towers at the OK Foods feed mill display Guido Van Helten’s portraits of Fort Smith locals.


This is a story of collaboration and, yes, the unexpected consequences of making a big bet on public art. It’s a story of inviting some of the world’s premier street artists to the second-largest city in Arkansas to create dazzling murals and boost the city’s self-image and curb appeal.

The story starts with local businessman Steve Clark, the driving force behind the nonprofit 64.6 Downtown, named after Fort Smith’s footprint in square miles and dedicated to economic development in what was a deteriorating city center. Clark and his partners believed a festival featuring the world’s coolest urban artists could generate publicity and energy, but they didn’t have the connections to make it happen.

Enter JustKids, a creative house that produces art events all over the world. As The Unexpected: Urban Contemporary Art Festival took shape, the name started to seem inevitable, says the festival director Claire Kolberg. Nobody, the name implies, would look to Fort Smith, Arkansas, a Southern city rich in Western history, for daring urban contemporary art. But in September 2015, eight superstar artists spent a little more than a week in town, creating a dozen extraordinary murals.

A local website celebrated the event: “We were rejuvenated. We all broke a sweat to go downtown and watch a handful of talented people paint cowboys, and Native Americans, and critters all over our beloved historic downtown.”

The festival’s success led to a second and a third event and so on, with residencies, installations, performances and videos in addition to ten more murals. Says Kolberg: “We saw the walls of buildings as the canvas on which we wanted to paint our future.” The two festivals, she said, have been a catalyst for at least half a dozen new businesses. The project’s curator, Charlotte Dutoit of JustKids, says Fort Smith “hadn’t seen so many people downtown in decades. It really woke up the town.”

Charlotte, North Carolina

A Lawn Chair on Yard Art Day in Charlotte North Carolina

Photo by Deborah Triplett, YardArtDay.org

On Yard Art Day, neighbors display their creative creations (such as this lawn chair by artist Linda Vista).


A grassroots arts exhibition “curated by the community for the community,” Yard Art Day began in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Labor Day in 2012. Now an annual Labor Day event, Yard Art Day encourages Charlotte residents of all ages to participate in a community-wide art installation by creating and displaying art on their front lawns, balconies and—for the lawnand balcony-less—even the tops of cars.

The only display rule: The art must be visible from the street. The 24-hour free event runs from midnight to midnight and defines art as all types of creative talent, including poetry, storytelling and dancing. Examples of recent artistic expressions range from traditional paintings, sculptures and crafts to white picket fences temporary transformed by bright watercolor paint and colored tape, beautiful dresses hanging from a crepe myrtle tree, even the lawn-upholstered lawn chair seen above.

(An extensive gallery of Yard Art creativity is on display at YardArtDay.org.)

“It is my dream that for one day people remember that child within them that likes to play creatively without any judgment or restraint,” writes photographer Deborah Triplett, the event’s founder. “For us to cross neighborhood, city boundaries. To be inclusive. Art can do this.” And it has.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks Alaska Storm Drain

Photo by Jackson Fox (as used in Where We Live, published by AARP in 2018)

A real result of Fairbanks’ annual street art competition — cleaner water!


Storm drains from the streets of Fairbanks empty directly into the Chena River, a habitat for moose, beaver, fish and migratory birds. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believed the drains connect directly to the sewage-treatment plant, and used them to dispose of harmful substances like used motor oil.

To change that harmful behavior in an educational and creative way, the Tanana Valley Watershed Association teamed up with the Fairbanks city government and local businesses.

Established in 2014, the Storm Drain Art Contest seeks proposals for street art based on the themes Storm Water Pollution (to draw attention to litter, vehicle fluids and pet waste), Wildlife (art featuring native birds, fish and mammals) and Quality of Life (focusing on the life-giving and recreational uses of water).

Proposals are put to a public vote, and the chosen artists—who range widely in age and experience—are commissioned to create their scenes using Fairbanks’ street grates, sidewalks and roadways as their canvas, earning $100 for the work and $50 for materials. (Partners include the Fairbanks Storm Water Advisory Committee and the Downtown Association of Fairbanks.) Improvements in water quality since the contest began have led to national recognition for the city’s environmental eorts.

In another beautification project, Cushman Street, one of Fairbanks’ main thoroughfares, was upgraded by bringing three chaotic traffic lanes down to two; adding trees, planters and better lighting; and improving the roadway’s traffic signals, directional signage and street drains.

Embossed into the iron of the new drains are the words “Dump No Waste” because runoff “Drains to River.”


This article is adapted from the "Arts, Entertainment and Fun" chapter of the AARP book Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Examples From America’s Community Leaders (2017). Download or order your free copy.

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