Gravel > “we need the Arts to drive the discussion.”

(ideas.)  Gravelblog original. “Claiming Space for a World Class Cultural Infrastructure.”

As I’m writing my book I am constantly reminded how the Atlanta Beltline came to life through a powerful grassroots movement. After three years working through Cathy Woolard’s office, we founded Friends of the Belt Line (FBL) in February 2004 as a champion for the project’s integrity and an advocate for the communities that made it possible. People claimed ownership of the project. They didn’t wait for permission. They took control of their future. And together with partnering nonprofit organizations and early political leadership, we built a powerful and expanding vision that today is having profoundly positive impacts on the life of our city. The public believed in the Atlanta Beltline before anyone else, and it is this energy and expectation that continues to empower – even obligate – today’s leadership to tackle the many challenges of building it.

It’s this assertive style of ownership that got us past the early naysayers, expanded the vision far beyond what anybody imagined, and even as recently as late last year was seen fighting against inappropriate development at Glenwood Park. It’s a lot of work, but it does a lot of good. So on the occasion of FBL’s tenth anniversary next month, after more than a decade of being friends, and as our vision becomes increasingly tangible through implementation, I think it is appropriate to consider what might still be missing from our movement.

I’m interested in hearing your ideas. For me, I can’t quit hoping that the public will assert its claim to the Atlanta Beltline’s physical space as strongly as we claim its vision. The corridor could become more experimental, developing a culture of constant change by many hands in different ways that would make it come alive. This could offer a fresh and provocative perspective on the public space and infrastructure required by a 21st century city.

Related to this idea, I think the Atlanta Beltline would benefit enormously from a more assertive sense of ownership by artists. An unreleased cultural impact study in 2007 already outlined every imaginable way we could leverage the project to support an arts-oriented economy. And the unexpected ten thousand people who showed up for last September’s Lantern Parade illustrate both the public’s appetite for the arts and the unique armature that the corridor provides for experiencing it. The city has young and energetic arts organizations like WonderRoot, Living Walls, glo, and Flux Projects that might be willing to help support a culturally-experimental appropriation of the corridor. And the city is full of emerging artists who have something relevant to say about our future.

But the challenge is bigger than simply the incorporation of public art. We need support for artist housing and work spaces so that artists can afford to stay in the city and fuel a cultural economy. We need to invest more in arts and cultural facilities. And we need to look beyond our safe establishment of artists, listen to new voices, and leverage those that make our city stand out. If Atlanta is “hip-hop’s center of gravity,” for example, then we need to pull hip-hop into our vision. And if we don’t like what somebody has to say, then we should be prepared to elevate our cultural dialog rather than shutting it down. It’s not too late, for example, to publicly debate the tragically-political destruction of French street artist Pierre Roti’s spectacular mural for Living Walls on University Avenue in 2012.

My point is this – if we want the Atlanta Beltline to live up to its potential as a world-class cultural infrastructure, then we need artists and the arts community to assert their ownership in its program. We need the Arts to drive the discussion about the Atlanta Beltline, not the other way around. We need you. This is your town – your Beltline. Don’t wait. Do something. >> Ryan Gravel

7 replies

  1. Thanks, guys. No doubt that it’s going to take all the arts orgs in town – big and small. My point is simply that I’d like to see them take a more assertive position relative to the Atlanta Beltline in order to take it to the next level.

  2. Congratulations Ryan on your successes to date regarding the Atlanta Beltline and best wishes for future success in both your personal and professional endeavors. I agree with and support your argument that the Atlanta arts community should take a stronger leadership role in the development of the Atlanta Beltline however, I would like to add a point of view that solicits a universal effort rather than a “Behemoth” versus “a smattering of excellent but small scale groups”.

    Just as the financial support for the growth and development of the Atlanta Beltline has come from a wide spectrum of interests ranging from the Federal government to the Woodruff Foundation to individual citizens, it might be most advantageous for Atlanta as well as the Atlanta Beltline to have the entire universe of the arts community’s support going forward. The resource base of Atlanta’s diverse and increasingly dynamic arts community represents a tremendous source of capital both financial and human that can leverage even more resources as well as highlighting their individual and collective capabilities to the world at large.

    A shared vision and a collective effort for one of the most important projects in Atlanta’s brief history that includes the universe of Atlanta’s arts would truly reflect well on Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of creating “The Beloved Community”.

  3. Thanks for starting the blog, Ryan. I think you’re going to find it can stimulate some very interesting and valuable discussions.

    I’m pleased to see you address the role of the arts in one of your early posts. I agree they’re essential “infrastructure” for a healthy, happy community. And while I couldn’t agree more that grass-roots efforts have played a key role in such successes as the Beltline, we need more. If we continue to use the “infrastructure” frame, how does Atlanta’s infrastructure of arts *organizations* stack up? Last study I saw (almost 10 years ago, admittedly) indicated that we have a huge gap, a dearth of mid-size arts organizations for a city our size.

    Switching metaphors, how do we enrich and complete the arts ecosystem here, so that it’s not just “the Behemoth” and a smattering of excellent but small-scale groups and individuals?

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