Is Raleigh finally getting serious about public art? | Wake County | Indy Week
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Is Raleigh finally getting serious about public art? 

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It all started with a butterfly.

Moore and Gant started talking one day in early 2014 about the fading black-and-white butterfly perched atop a yellow blob of flower, a painting on the side of the Remedy Diner on East Hargett Street.

"Are there other ones like this, and why aren't there, and what can we do to save the ones that are already here?" Moore wondered. "That led to, 'Let's have a conversation and see what happens,' and then it just took off."

Moore and Gant launched a website showcasing Raleigh murals last April. Since then, they've had a hand in bringing about several murals across town, including the Escher quotes and an ongoing project at Shaw University in which Chapel Hill-based artist Scott Nurkin painted campus underpasses to reflect the historically black institution's history and future. And they're just getting started: The Raleigh Mural Project has been involved in several murals that are launching this month and early next year, including Lyons' mural at Trophy, a collaboration with the nonprofit Truth, whose goal is to keep teenagers from smoking.

"To me, [Lyons' mural] is one of the most interesting stories we've had so far that involves cool clients and an interesting concept behind it," Gant says. "It's like people realize that Raleigh is now a destination for this. It's encouraging that there is a connection from people here to people like this who can get things done."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

In conceptualizing the Raleigh Murals Project, Moore and Gant looked for inspiration to Richmond, Virginia, where an organization pays artists from all over the world to come paint the city's surfaces and walls. Moore also points to Miami, where the colorful Wynwood Walls have transformed what was essentially a warehouse district. Philadelphia has a widely acclaimed mural arts program that emerged in the 1980s. New York City has always been a destination for graffiti artists. And European cities like Brussels, adorned all over with comic strip-style murals, and London have offered democratized spaces for artists for decades.

Raleigh, a traditionally conservative city with strict sign ordinances, has not. But as it's grown, the need for more public art has become apparent. In 2009, the City Council passed an ordinance that reserves half of a percent of municipal funding for construction projects to go toward public art. In 2014, the council clarified rules for neighborhood art on public property. And in a speech last month, Mayor Nancy McFarlane emphasized the need for more art, saying that the arts "are an integral part of how we define ourselves."

But for Raleigh to become a street-art destination, Gant and Moore realize that, along with curating strong local talent, the city will need to attract world-class artists, and that all these artists will eventually need to be paid. So Gant and Pam Blondin, owner of the gift shop Deco, recently founded Flight, a foundation that seeks to pay people who make public art. A pop-up store by the same name, selling locally made arts, crafts and jewelry, has emerged on East Martin Street; for as long as it's open, 10 percent of its proceeds will go to Flight.

Another important piece of the puzzle, Gant and Moore say, will be building and maintaining a relationship with city officials.

"I think it's the goal of 2016 to get the city of Raleigh involved," Gant says. "I don't know what that means. I like to set the expectation really low, but if it's only two murals on two city-owned buildings, that would be amazing."

Kim Curry-Evans, the city of Raleigh's public arts coordinator, is on board. She's been working on a long-term public arts plan that she says will give the city direction. One of the most important aspects of that process, Curry-Evans says, has been figuring out "how we can have art everywhere. And not art that's so much pushed by the city, but art that's pushed by everyone. The murals project is very cool because that's a perfect example of that. Now it's a question of how to use our leverage to do things on the different city properties that are sitting vacant but are potentially opportunities for public art."

One such opportunity has already been seized: The Contemporary Art Museum is sponsoring a temporary mural that will go up on a city-owned building near the future Union Station. (That building will eventually be demolished.)

"The conversation is just going to get bigger and louder," says Gant.

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