A tale of two public arts projects

While one popular exhibit can't find funding, another finds a home

At a town hall meeting held last week inside the cavernous alternative art space Eyedrum, the 20 or so attendees — including gallery owners and artists, government reps and arts advocates — appeared to agree on only one thing: The relationship between the city's creative community and its official powers-that-be is on the rocks.

The June 14 meeting was called to address what some refer to as draconian guidelines proposed by the city's Office of Cultural Affairs for obtaining permits to exhibit public art in Freedom Park, which was designated in March as Atlanta's first "art park."

But the discussion quickly drifted to the acrimony over a benign-sounding public arts project called Embracing Differences.

A photographer attending the meeting was the first to drop the E.D. bomb. "How did Embracing Differences get approved for a permit?" he asked.

After all, the project's brochure cites its venue as Freedom Park, but the city has turned away at least one other potential public art project – offered by the very group, Public Space Initiative, that helped draft the city's art-park legislation. Their application was denied on the grounds that the Office of Cultural Affairs still needs to establish permitting guidelines.

As a result, Embracing Differences is being held up – perhaps incorrectly – as an example of local government's favoritism regarding certain public art projects. It doesn't help that Embracing Differences is viewed as the antithesis to what arguably was the largest and most popularly received public art project in recent city history, 2005's Art in Freedom Park.

At the meeting, which was called by Public Space Initiative, one of the group's founders, Bill Gignilliat, went so far as to tell the meeting-goers that he and others believe Embracing Differences is the corporatized and bureaucratic force responsible for the demise of the grassroots and decidedly independent Art in Freedom Park.

Evan Levy, the outspoken organizer of Art in Freedom Park, put it more bluntly. "The playing field," he said, "is not level right now."

After the success of the five-month Art in Freedom Park exhibit in 2005 – which adorned the city's largest park with sculptures, sound-capturing devices, squirrel-crossing road signs and massive neon-orange hammocks – Levy immediately sought funding for 2006. The Fulton County Arts Council responded with a letter that committed nearly $50,000, twice the amount as 2005.

Weeks later, however, the arts council said it had made a mistake – and Levy's group would receive no money. "Once that card got pulled out," Levy says, "that's what collapsed Art in Freedom Park."

He also says he was outraged when, five months after he cancelled the 2006 Art in Freedom Park, a privately funded group began to plan its own public art exhibition in Freedom Park – a collection of nearly 40 billboard-sized paintings called Embracing Differences that touch on the topics of tolerance and diversity.

There are three things about Embracing Differences that bother Levy and others in the arts community. One, the newly minted nonprofit group, Embracing Differences Inc., loosely based the concept for its fall 2007 exhibition on a public art project in Sarasota, Fla. – an exhibit that had far more corporate involvement, including the heavy presence of corporate logos, than Art in Freedom Park.

"Why would they go to Sarasota for a model for a temporary public art project when they had a successful project here to fund?" Levy asks. "It's more of a top-down approach, telling the artists and the arts community what programming [arts officials] are going to support, rather than letting a grassroots-type element emerge."

The second thing that irks Levy, Gignilliat and others is that the brochure for Embracing Differences lists the venue as Freedom Park – despite the fact that the city told Gignilliat in April that the project he offered through Public Space Initiative was denied because the city had yet to establish a permitting process for public art.

But the thing that really gets Levy worked up is that Fulton County Arts Council Chairman Charles Green simultaneously serves as a member of the county's funding arm and CFO of Embracing Differences Inc.

In an inflammatory post to a local arts listserv earlier this year, Levy accused Green of a conflict of interest.

Levy tells CL, "It's a personal thing for me, the fact that Charles Green, less than five months after Fulton County sent us that letter – which was CC'd to him – went to the Freedom Park Conservancy to put into place his program, Embracing Differences."

Green, however, denies any conflict of interest. He says his program applied for no city or county funds, and he had nothing to do with what happened with funding for Art in Freedom Park. He also points out that while he serves on the Fulton County Arts Council, it's the city that approves all permits.

"It's unfortunate that somebody's disappointment becomes a personal attack," says Green, who's also a local arts philanthropist and president of Sunshine Bank. "The project found me and asked for my help. Although this particular project wasn't born from the arts community, I think it's very valid, and it can be a benefit to our city and our arts community."

As for the permit for Embracing Differences, Green says, "That's a process we're about to initiate. We do understand we have to get a permit, and we're kind of running late in starting that."

Artists' submissions for the monthlong September exhibit were due June 18.

Green says Embracing Differences is not intended to replace Art in Freedom Park. He considers himself "very supportive of installations like Art in Freedom Park" and describes the project as "absolutely marvelous."

"I think everybody, universally, wants it to happen again," Green continues. "We're waiting on the organizers to make it happen."

Yet the marketing material for Embracing Differences speaks to the challenge in securing funds for temporary art – and for Art in Freedom Park in particular.

The project's website describes city and county funding as "somewhat limited for realizing temporary projects," and it states, "The highly successful Art in Freedom Park in 2005 speaks for itself. Despite its artistic merit and public appeal, continued funding for it has been difficult to secure."

Levy, who did not apply for Art in Freedom Park funds for 2007, says that if the project were to occur again, it would be organized by Gignilliat's nonprofit Public Space Initiative. "How could I even trust a contract with Fulton County again?" he asks.

Gignilliat says that, based on his recent experience applying for permits, he's not optimistic about the future of Art in Freedom Park.

"The city and the county have made it so difficult to get seed money in follow-up to what was a success," he says. "They need to reach out and say it was of merit, and that they support it."