Gadsden Public Art Project enhances city, making art accessible for community

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Kirk Seese’s “Feather” sits at the corner of First and Broad streets in Gadsden. Photo courtesy of The Walnut Gallery.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Locals and tourists strolling down Broad Street or biking at Noccalula Falls will now catch a glimpse of change in their eyes as they witness artistic additions to their favorite frequented locations.

Those additions emerge as an exciting new initiative underway to incorporate public art throughout Gadsden – generating a sense of unity among citizens and a deeper appreciation for the city they call home.

Coined The Gadsden Public Art Project, the feat first originated a decade ago when local resource The Walnut Gallery proposed an incentive to bring public art to Gadsden. As an extension of non-profit organization Walnut Gallery, Inc. that promotes contemporary art, The Walnut Gallery serves as a space for exhibits and school for fine arts, nurturing the cultural exchange of ideas through an open and public forum.

The Walnut Gallery Executive Director Mario Gallardo collaborated with the gallery’s board, staff and the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation to secure a grant that funded the installation of several pieces on Broad Street. As the years progressed, Gallardo formed partnerships with other likeminded individuals and organizations who recognize public art’s role in society and the arts’ impact on the city’s advancement overall.

While Gadsden possesses invaluable resources such as The Gadsden Museum of Art, The Walnut Gallery, Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, Downtown Gadsden, Inc. and other organizations that strive to enhance Gadsden’s relationship with the arts and foster cultural progress, The Gadsden Public Art Project represents an alternative approach to traditional introductions to art, sparking a deeper conversation.

“Public art provides access in ways that shows inside a museum may not always provide,” said Gallardo. “There are always going to be those people who are willing to go to the museum, but there’s a certain percent who just aren’t. Not everyone is willing to go inside. To have art outside is a way to get that larger audience – it’s a way to start that conversation that everybody should know the value of art for a broader audience.”

“[Public art like sculptures and murals] is a point of beautification and makes people notice their surroundings,” said Gadsden Museum of Art Director Ray Wetzel, who partnered with Gallardo on the project. “Just a street down here with buildings is nice, but art gives focal points where people can walk up and down Broad Street and have little points of memory.”

When public art takes root in a city, the pieces ignite interest from pedestrians walking past or tourists driving throughout town. Thought-provoking and captivating, public art provides people with the freedom to enjoy intriguing creations as they complete their daily routines, enhancing an area’s aesthetic while building an appreciation for art’s significant influence on the community.

“Even something abstract and nonrepresentational can be offensive when you’re not used to seeing things like that,” said Gallardo, discussing how incorporating public art into a community requires an open mind. “Think of the Eiffel Tower. When it went up, people were appalled by it. Now, it’s such an integral part of the identity of Paris. It’s the same way with The Gadsden Public Art Project. Once you get people’s aesthetic used to seeing new things, things become more acceptable.”

Gallardo emphasized that public art (and a city’s relationship with its arts community as a whole) establishes an identity or brand that inspires outsiders to visit, encourages businesses development and boosts economic revitalization. He reflected on Chattanooga, Tennessee’s transformation 20 years ago, when the city adopted an identity that accentuates culture, entertainment and art. Chattanooga mirrors Gadsden in many ways, from its size and geographic location near water to its history as an industrial town. Today, Chattanooga shines as a community booming with street art and cultural institutions – a hub of innovation that flourished from intentional planning and rebranding.

Gadsden harbors immense potential for a similar renaissance, with that change serving as a catalyst for future economic and cultural growth. While powerful forms of creative expression, art and entertainment simultaneously support an area’s economy. Wetzel shared that in order to attract professional leadership such as doctors, lawyers and businesses, cities will spotlight institutions like museums and art galleries to connect with people, portraying an area’s attractive quality of life and promote the treasures the city offers. The presence of art and entertainment directly correlates with the city’s growth, drawing tourists inward and establishing the town as a thriving and exciting place to live.

“A lot of exhibits bring people from other parts of the state or country because artists have friends who have followings,” said Gadsden Museum of Art Foundation Board President John Graham, reiterating how a surging arts community proves beneficial for cities. “[In Gadsden] we’ve got one of the better art museums in one of the little towns in the region. [Museums also offer educational and professional opportunities] as places for art and history majors at colleges like Gadsden State Community College and Jacksonville State University to find internships.”

Gallardo shared that although art generates growth for cities, it emerges as something far greater – a bridge that connects people from all walks of life. Art inspires harmony, encouraging an atmosphere of freedom, granting people the opportunity to come together and appreciate what unites them as a community, rather than focusing on division. From jazz night at Back Forty Beer Company to live bands gathering crowds in the courtyard at Blackstone Pub & Eatery, the music (as an art form) transcends divisive opinions and unifies audiences.

“The arts allows us to do things we can’t do in other ways,” said Gallardo. “It allows us to talk about difficult things – issues we may not stand up on a soapbox and talk about, but the arts has a way to talk about it without browbeating you. Art has a way of breaking down those barriers, bringing people together and creating community. It brings unity. There’s that personal pleasure of looking at art, but it does so much more. There’s a function to it. That’s the driving factor for me – creating unity.”

This current installment of The Gadsden Public Art Project derived its collection from artists nationwide, following The Walnut Gallery’s call for proposals that spanned across the country, seeking talented and inventive individuals to participate in the project. Interested artists submitted biographies, artist statements detailing the history of their projects and images of their artwork alongside two pieces to be considered for the public exhibition. Submissions were assessed coinciding with established criteria, evaluated based upon appropriateness, suitability for outdoors and whether or not the piece fit the atmosphere of Gadsden.

Of those submitted, the Gadsden Public Art Project purchased three new works and installed four new sculptures. Glenn Dasher’s Oh Myopia resides at The Walnut Gallery, Craig Wedderspoon’s Quilted Vessel appears on Broad Street and Jamey Grimes’ installation hangs at The Gadsden Museum of Art. Twin Bridges Golf Club houses Jarod Charzewski’s Wedge on loan for two years, while Kirk Seese’s Feather sits at the corner of First and Broad streets downtown.

The Gadsden Public Art Project is not limited to sculptures alone. Gallardo and Wetzel advocated for the inclusion of murals and other creative manifestations, acquiring permission for multiple paintings to ordain buildings throughout the city. One of those iconic displays debuted in fall of 2020, with Iowa-based artist Ali Hval transforming a dreary wall into a vibrant landmark for residents and tourists alike. Eye-catching as a postcard depiction of the city’s most famous resources, the “Welcome to Gadsden” mural now occupies the same space as Feather, foreshadowing future partnerships to fulfill the project’s mission.

Gallardo, Wetzel and Graham commended Downtown Gadsden, Inc. Director Kay Moore for her involvement in the project, alongside the Gadsden City Council which support the initiative. They all expressed their appreciation for these positive relationships, sharing that this essential assistance alongside funding from the State Council on the Arts generates greater opportunities in Gadsden, unlike other small communities which cannot acquire adequate support.

The stalwart partnerships between Gallardo, Wetzel and local organizations represent passionate individuals seeking to transform their community in a favorable manner for all who reside in the area. As art serves as a source of unification, The Gadsden Public Art Project reinforces that connective nature art fosters and promotes – building bridges toward Gadsden’s progressive and successful future and inspiring others to follow suit.

“People can be actively involved in changing their community for the positive, for the better,” said Gallardo. “It doesn’t have to be visual arts – just an interest in seeing the community grow and turn into something larger, if you’re willing to partner with people. We want [The Gadsden Art Project] to go beyond us and become something that’s an identity for the community.”

“It’s not about an institution. It’s not about one person. It’s about the city. We hope people realize that they have ownership; they can help fund these things – find spots and help us with sponsorships. There are a lot of resources in the community, you just have to be able to coordinate those. People can be more than they think. If you want to see something happen, make it happen.”

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