When Kim Curry-Evans arrived in Raleigh in 2010 to take a new job as the city’s public art director, most every new acquaintance she made wanted to know why.
“I would be at different meetings or cocktail parties, so I would announce my job as the one doing public art for the City of Raleigh. People would pull me aside and say, ‘Well, you know about our history, right?’” she remembers with a laugh and a short sigh. “It was, ‘Oh my goodness, what are you going to do?’”
Curry-Evans soon enough learned what that history was. It was evident enough from a simple tour of the town that public art had seldom been a planning priority; massive municipal walls or warehouse sites or parking lots had rarely been reimagined in Raleigh. And then there was the bile for one of the city’s most prominent public pieces, Dale Eldred’s Light+Time Tower, a gangly aluminum obelisk equipped with light-diffracting panels and installed on a particularly harried section of Capital Boulevard in 1995. The piece polarized the city, with its many critics lampooning it as a useless cell phone tower and its (few) champions simply happy to see art prompting any response in Raleigh. Given that reception, it was little wonder when, a decade later, a proposal for acclaimed Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa to turn a square in Fayetteville Street into a surreal, shimmering art installation failed to muster adequate city support, despite Capitol Broadcasting Company’s Jim Goodmon pledging to pay for the whole thing. Durham got the Plensa sculpture two years later.
“Part of my job, in addition to getting the public art program started, became helping people understand that public art was a positive thing, as opposed to a detriment,” Curry-Evans says. In particular, she had to convince fellow city staff members that her program wasn’t taking money away from their programs but was instead enriching their work and the city at large, making everything more appealing. “When the first couple of projects started rolling out, they started to see it as a good thing. But it took quite a bit.”
In the seven years since Curry-Evans arrived in Raleigh, she has seen the city’s public spaces and the city’s perception of public art shift dramatically. Raleigh has suddenly become a hotbed for it, a place where entire walls and sidewalks have become canvases and the possibilities now seem endless, not empty.
There’s a permanent film art installation on Fayetteville Street downtown and a fascinating police memorial on Hargett Street, plus an esoteric, 18-foot-tall sculpture slated for Sandy Forks Road in North Raleigh. The state-run North Carolina Museum of Art has been pivotal, too, overhauling its grounds to become a sort of walking museum, full of unexpected ways for people to interact with art.
But all of this momentum isn’t city- or state-funded. Instead, much of Raleigh’s public art energy stems from ordinary, enthusiastic citizens who unintentionally helped drive the city to embrace public art by simply doing it themselves. To date, all of the city’s murals have been privately driven by individuals or organizations, such as the Raleigh Murals Project and Flight, the new arts-funding group that coordinated Lincoln Hancock’s popular effort to turn a downtown storefront into an interactive rainbow flag last year during the state’s HB 2 crisis. The boarded windows of Stone’s Warehouse, a sprawling bus-repair depot being redeveloped into a commercial center on downtown’s east side, are temporarily covered by playful, colorful paintings from local elementary schools—a project led by the developers themselves.
“For a while, we felt like, ‘Are we the only ones who care about public art?’” says Terri Dollar, the Program Director at Raleigh’s Artsplosure for nearly two decades and a longtime local arts activist and educator before that. “But now there are so many great things happening, and, in a sense, it’s been demanded. Raleigh has become a cooler place for people to live, and you get these cool people saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to see what we could do if a bunch of us got together.’ It’s nice to see when individuals don’t expect their government just to pay for it.”
Jedidiah Gant certainly falls into Dollar’s classification. A few years ago, Gant was struck by the wealth of empty, boring walls as he wandered through downtown Raleigh. A North Carolina native, he’d lived in London for a spell and become an avid fan of Banksy and fellow street artists. He loved the way a painting could suddenly activate a whole community, making an entire place that much more intriguing. He began posting photos of those unadorned walls via New Raleigh, the social media news channel he’s managed since 2007, with the hashtag #putamuralhere.
“It was a public awareness campaign,” Gant says. “That’s all I was thinking.”
But people responded. In particular, a friend named JT Moore told Gant he needed a creative outlet apart from his job, so they decided to turn the hashtag into a legitimate operation, the Raleigh Murals Project, in an attempt to begin putting art on the walls Gant had identified.
When the pair launched the project, the concept was so new in town that the first mural was actually an advertisement for more murals. Beneath a pedestrian overpass on the campus of Shaw University, Lisa Gaither painted a call for entries, asking artists to submit sketches for how they might transform the drab concrete walls along Blount Street for the school’s 150th anniversary.
Eventually, Chapel Hill artist Scott Nurkin turned the overlooked space into a reliquary of Raleigh’s past and present, where images of iconic Shaw alumni and primers on the neighboring South Park community commingled with profiles of the growing Raleigh skyline. During the last two years, the Raleigh Murals Project has facilitated nearly three dozen more pieces across the city, with many more in the queue.
It’s been so busy, in fact, that one of the project’s earliest collaborators, Sean Kernick, has even launched a full-time business, Oak City Mural Co., to put art on the side of buildings. One of his biggest projects to date is a colorful underwater scene on the side of the Raleigh institution, Earp’s Seafood.
“I have a fire-in-my-belly passion about painting, but I have never fully given myself to it. But it seemed like the time was now,” says Kernick. When he first launched the business, he wasn’t sure if he’d have enough business to sustain himself. But he’s now enlisted his wife, Ann Marie, to help navigate his schedule and keep commitments.
“In the beginning, it was super rough and scary,” he remembers. “I am still trying to figure out how to manage the amount of work coming through. We have production meetings weekly now.”
The city has taken notice of this tizzy and is now helping push all of these artistic efforts forward. Working with the Raleigh Murals Project and Flight, the city will soon fund murals on the construction fences that surround the overdue Moore Square renovation. Still, Gant isn’t content with that.
“Early on, we made a goal of getting one mural on a city building at some point. That hasn’t happened yet,” he says. “But it may finally happen this year, through OPTIC.”
In early October, OPTIC will become the premier public face of Raleigh’s municipal arts ambition. A ten-day mural festival in which artists from around the world will transform surfaces and lead events across the city, OPTIC represents a potential, necessary public-private nexus for this movement. The city is collaborating closely with the likes of Gant, artist and arts advocate Emily Alexander and downtown gallery the Visual Art Exchange to produce a different sort of Raleigh festival, following the string of fall events such as Hopscotch and IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass.
A Raleigh native whose mother, Lynn Jones Ennis, was the curator at N.C. State’s Gregg Museum of Art and Design, Alexander is working to raise $150,000 through in-kind donations and grants in order to pay the artists and sustain the idea. It’s an audacious event with plans for ten major murals and many more small-scale sites spread across town.
“I feel pretty happy for us—not just OPTIC, but that a lot of people on a lot of levels are making public art happen. It’s changed my relationship to my hometown,” says Alexander. “Public art is a deeper expression of a place’s commitment to people’s voices. It shouldn’t be something that everybody agrees on, or it will completely disappear into the background. If we can, as a city, get comfortable with that belief in public art, then we may actually catch up to our idea of ourselves and our growth.”
Alexander’s aspiration touches on a central tenet of Raleigh’s public art enthusiasts: They see what’s happening now very much as a long-delayed beginning, the start of a never-ending conversation about the aesthetics and priorities of our community. There’s a long way to go. Curry-Evans, for instance, knows that the onus is on the city to make public art easier for private citizens, so that anyone with an idea can put it into play with less worry about burdensome regulations. Gant, meanwhile, emphasizes that murals aren’t meant merely to beautify blank walls, and that public art must start conversations and stand for values.
Likewise, Kernick dreams of pushing murals outside of downtown, so that all communities can experience public art more easily. Anderson shares that passion and wants to use public art not as a symbol of gentrification, but as a tool to fight against it, a way to represent what communities have and do stand for.
“Public art doesn’t have to be about making something pretty. When it’s good and strong, it conveys in a way that gets folks talking,” says Curry-Evans. “Even better, it allows people to participate and share in their city.”