City seeks to transform troubled downtown through art

Can Elevate raise the prospects of some of Atlanta’s blighted blocks?

Is it possible to transform bleak and abandoned blocks of downtown Atlanta through public art? That’s the question city officials have been contemplating lately, and they’re taking the possibility seriously enough to fund a second year of what was originally planned as a one-time arts event called Elevate.

“One art piece has the potential to transform a building that’s been a problem for years,” says Courtney Hammond, project coordinator in the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees Elevate. The event takes place this year from Oct. 19-27 and brings large-scale public artworks to downtown Atlanta in the hopes of revitalizing the area.

The 2011 pilot event, Elevate: Art Above Underground, was a 66-day, 26-project public art exhibition at Underground Atlanta designed to draw the public’s attention to the space with art. According to Hammond, more than 100 publications wrote about downtown Atlanta as a result. “It got really far,” she says. “The Office of Cultural Affairs decided it was an important program they should continue doing.”

This year, there’s more funding and a tighter focus. There will be fewer projects, but they’ll all be executed on a larger-scale. And the event has been condensed into a more manageable nine days, with events occurring nightly instead of being concentrated on opening night. OCA sought out projects it felt could impact the downtown landscape and draw visitors, with proposals coming from all over but with most of the accepted projects coming from Atlanta-based artists. The projects will include a wooden façade installation by Adrian Barzaga at the abandoned building at 143 Alabama St., a fiber installation by artist Randy Walker at Woodruff Park’s fountain, and a mixed-media quilt laden with LED lights by Lillian Blades at Hardy Ivy Park’s Carnegie Education Pavilion.

Perhaps most notably this year, the one-block area on South Broad Street between MLK Drive and Mitchell Street will be the location of one of the event’s most ambitious projects. “That block has been a problem for a while,” Hammond says. “All of the buildings are vacant except two or three.” The city has commissioned five street muralists — Hense, Sever, Born, Push, and Tilt — to reimagine the street, giving each of them an entire building to paint throughout the week. “We think it’s going to lay nicely across the landscape and really change the entire city block,” says Hammond, who thinks the murals may even have the potential to transform the dreary block into a tourist destination.

Each of the commissioned artworks will be given a performance night, and the exhibition Imaginary Million at 200 Peachtree St. (the old Macy’s building), showcasing the work of 100 artists curated by WonderRoot, Kennesaw State University, and MOCA-GA. The city is offering free daily tours of all the projects, leaving from Peachtree Center Plaza at noon Monday to Friday and on Thursday night at 6 p.m.

“I work down here and it’s really beautiful at night,” says Hammond, who says she hopes the projects of Elevate will continue to draw people’s attention to the potential of the underutilized area. “I’m always shocked when I see there aren’t enough people experiencing it.”