At Startup Southerner, we talk a lot about entrepreneurial ventures, the happenings of startups and the impact they have on the region’s economy. But we can’t forget that context plays an important role in the success of these ventures. Nation, region and community have the power to either cultivate or inhibit success and growth. Our physical spaces have to be at once inviting to new talent and respectful of those already within the community. One such way that communities are balancing innovation and culture is through public art.
In his book, “Who’s Your City?” Richard Florida addresses the circumstances which constitute an economically fruitful region by showing the importance of location. He argues that “What matters today isn’t where most people settle, but where the greatest number of the most skilled people locate.” For a community to be one of highly-concentrated resources and skill, it has to be able to attract and retain creative people.
As we well know, our information economy is dependent largely on knowledge and technology. In this sense, success is no longer location-, resource-, monetary- or skill-based. Rather, we are enabled to create, sell and network from anywhere. All it takes is a good idea and a laptop, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Florida’s observations emphasize the importance of physical place in determining economic success. As he explains it, “Technical knowledge is not produced outside the system and then applied to it; it is generated from within, through processes that create new ideas and knowledge, which in turn lead to new technologies and useful information—the wellsprings of growth.” Hospitable infrastructure and pleasing aesthetics, therefore, are integral components for a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Unfortunately, there are material repercussions that can compromise the effectiveness of knowledge-based capital. For example, an economic shift towards entertainment and tourism can be destructive to the culture already established in a specific area. Florida explains that while “Tens of millions of people have moved from urban centers to suburbs that offer newer housing, newer infrastructure, and a perceived better quality of life” the phenomenon “has undoubtedly given rise to new divisions of class and race, a heightened dependence on the automobile, ever growing mass consumption, and wholly new living patterns.”
These patterns have the potential to create and deepen the divide of opportunity within communities through gentrification. But gentrification doesn’t just threaten individuals within a community—it also compromises the community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The preservation of culture through art is essential for a thriving community and, by extension, a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. In other words, art isn’t a luxury that can be indulged after economic success—it is integral to it.
In creating fruitful communities, we are faced with the challenge of attracting and retaining creative talent, while also preserving the existing culture within a community. Several cities have found this balance by commissioning muralists to revitalize local communities.
Murals aid in attracting artists through commission, attracting tourism through aesthetic, and preserving the existing culture through art. Here are just a few examples of how mural projects have helped to revitalize communities and create a hospitable and desirable environment:
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville has used murals to revitalize its diverse communities. The River Arts District, for example, is known for its vast amounts street art. In 1995, an old cotton mill in Asheville was destroyed in a fire. The people of a nonprofit organization called Art 2 People bought and revitalized the building with the help of a muralist named Ian Wilkinson. The Historic Cotton Mill Studios, a diverse group of artists, now identifies the River Arts District of Asheville as home. Wilkinson now serves as the director for Asheville Mural Project, which assists in “revitalizing existing urban environments and memorializing the diversity of experience and culture that Asheville hosts.”
AMP maintains its efforts to engage both the community and artists through community engagement. One annual event called Burners and BBQ engages the community and artists alive with the “hope to provide our city with art that inspires others to do the same and specifically gives Asheville’s youth something ambitious they can aspire to,” according to AMP.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Director of the St. Petersburg Mural Festival, Leon Bedore, believes that “Murals are reflective of a city that takes pride in its community.” It is in this spirit that the festival has enabled and supported the continual development of creativity in St. Petersburg by bringing together international, national and local artists to transform and reflect the visual culture of the city. Look for updates on the 2017 Festival, which will be held October 5-14, here.
In recent years, Nashville has experienced an incomprehensible boom that has presented the city with the challenge of being aesthetically pleasing amidst development and maintaining its status as the Athens of the South. 2016 marked the beginning of the Nashville Walls Project, which is “bringing some of the world’s top street and graffiti artists to Nashville for mural projects, exhibits and events.” Founded by Brian Greif and The co founder is Eva Boros, the project supports the community and art by commissioning artists from around the world and encouraging public engagement with their diverse works.
Chattanooga, TN’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, previously known as East 9th Street, was once the home of lively African-American commerce and culture. The rush to the suburbs in the 1950s and the development of an AT&T building, however, compromised its character. The AT&T building, which once indicated a devastating divide within the city, has since been revived with a monstrous mural on each side of the building. American Boulevard, a documentary made by a Birmingham-based studio, shows how the mural now represents the area’s creative revival.