NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA) — Public art has brought more than a splash of color to local cities, it has given folks a new reason to come and visit.
Fort Smith and Fayetteville are getting in on the public art phenomena with brilliant murals and other unique installations.
“There are so many ways that it contributes in the form of tourism, in the form of economic development, also cultural development,” said Claire Kolberg, director of The Unexpected.
The Unexpected has redefined the look of Fort Smith’s downtown district with 30 pieces of art, primarily murals, created by internationally renowned artists from across the world.
“It has certainly enhanced the image of the town internationally, and we love the publicity and attention it brings to Downtown Fort Smith and all of Fort Smith,” said Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “It has really surprised a lot of people because it has really enhanced our image as far as the arts.”
For one week each year, artists create murals and other public art installations. The Unexpected returns to Fort Smith from Oct. 7-12, during which time artists will create new murals on buildings.
“We do know the event itself generates about 250 overnight stays in the city during that week from the artists and folks who come along with them,” Legris said.
While it’s difficult to determine how much revenue The Unexpected generates as an attraction, it does excite tourists and visitors, according to Legris.
“When we have other groups come to town, they always want information and we provide maps of where all the murals are, and that’s a very popular item for them,” Legris said. “They will go on a self-guided tour [of the murals], or sometimes they even put together a tour group.”
The Fort Smith Visitors and Convention Bureau also work with 64/6 Downtown, the nonprofit that produces The Unexpected, in providing what is referred to as a step-on guide, which Legris described as a driving tour of different art. During the tour, visitors are given background on the various murals.
“People learn the stories of who the artists are and where they’re from,” Legris said.
The Unexpected is funded by donations from private individuals and corporate businesses. Fort Smith, Kolberg said, wasn’t chosen for The Unexpected. Fort Smith, she said, is home to the founder of The Unexpected and 64/6 Downtown.
“We are essentially creating the kind of city that our founder and his family and people who are relocating to the area want to live in; [a city] that is diverse culturally, that is diverse in its population, that has different kind of offerings and plays on Fort Smith’s historical reputation as a vibrant entertainment town,” Kolberg said.
The local art boom has also found its way to Fayetteville.
Experience Fayetteville, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, has invested $140,000 into Fayetteville’s public art culture over the past two years, according to Hazel Hernandez, vice president of sales and marketing for Experience Fayetteville.
Experience Fayetteville has commissioned eight public art projects, including six murals.
In 2017, Experience Fayetteville hired Justkids, the group that curates The Unexpected, to curate a series of murals in Fayetteville, including the solar eclipse on the west wall of the former Hog Haus Brewing Co. building on Dickson Street, the two bears on the window sill on the Bradberry Building at 21 W. Mountain St., and the jack rabbit by Jason Jones on the west wall of the David W. McKee Architect studio at 545 W. Center St., according to Hernandez.
“I think it enhances our city and speaks to the culture of Fayetteville and makes our city attractive,” Hernandez said. “It adds to the experience visitors have when they come to Fayetteville.”
It’s impossible to gauge the financial impact murals bring to the city, Hernandez said.
“There’s an impact on overall tourism in the economic landscape, I believe. It enhances the visitors experience in Fayetteville,” she said.
The City of Fayetteville does not have a budgeted line item for public art, but a line item for an Arts Funding Support Program has been proposed for the 2020 budget, according to Dede Peters, project manager for the city’s Communications Department.
“For many, many years the only arts provider in the area was the Walton Arts Center, and the city started giving funds to give [the Arts Center] financial support so they can offer art education and art programming in the community. Last year it was $250,000,” Peters said. “The City Council is looking at a different way of rewarding the money. It will be a competitive bidding process.”
The city has funded a couple of murals, including one called ‘Nature Doesn’t Hurry, Yet Everything Gets Done’ on College Avenue, south of North Street, across the street from Sassy’s Restaurant, a Native American-themed mural around the mouth of a tunnel on the Tsa La Gi trail, according to Peters.