What will it take for Savannah to become a true arts destination? Cléa Hernández collaborates with three art advocates and one editor to imagine the possibilities. Photography by Katie McGee.
It’s happy hour in Savannah, and it has arrived not a moment too soon. Lightning slashes the riverfront and a torrential downpour pummels Congress Street as our cozy group watches the drama unfold safely through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls at Ampersand.
As we talk, it’s clear that something else is brewing here besides the storm; something that has been top-of-mind for artists and arts advocates in the community for a long time. With the city’s historic nod to art and commerce, the explosive creative energy generated by resident artists and students, plans underway for a new cultural arts center, and the recent strides made for public wall art by SeeSAW, why isn’t Savannah more recognizable worldwide as a bona fide arts destination the way Asheville, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Miami are?
Savannah magazine associate editor Amy Condon and I wanted to investigate, so we invited local art ambassadors to join us for a liberating round of libations and confabulation. Our eloquent escorts through Savannah’s creative landscape represent three examples of arts advocacy powerhouses operating right here on the Creative Coast, each one dedicated specifically to the advancement of the arts in our tableau vivant of a city.
“Part of the solution is synthesis, and the need to bring people together, which is what our organizations are here to address,” our guest Christen Clougherty points out, as we all raise a glass to elevating Savannah’s status.
Meet Our Guests
A founding board member of ARC Savannah, Christen leverages the unifying power of her organization to serve as a platform for art advocacy, vision and action. She is a professor at Savannah State University, where many of her courses deal with the business and legal fundamentals for artists. In her “spare time” she also helms the Nobis Project, an educational nonprofit that uses service learning to promote global citizenship education.
As executive director of the nonprofit Art Rise Savannah, Clinton specializes in community building and economic vitalization through the arts in Chatham County. His lofty imperative is to build up our creative economy by supporting the value of art with programs like the monthly First Friday Art March, Fresh Exhibitions Gallery, and the Savannah Art Informer, an online local arts review journal.
A native New Yorker, Jerome Meadows exchanged his subway pass for Savannah’s underground art community in 1997. Indigo Sky Gallery, which he founded in an old ice house on Waters Avenue, works to forge key alliances between the “powers that be” and the “powers that create.” A prolific sculptor, Jerome was commissioned by the Telfair Museum in 2009 to create an exhibition called Reframing a Perceptual Paradigm, in which he juxtaposed 130 works from the museum’s collection with his own.
Is Savannah an arts destination now? If not, where are we on that spectrum?
Jerome: I feel confident in saying that the elements are here, the ingredients are here, but it’s certainly not as much of a destination as it can be.
Christen: I was thinking the same thing. All the ingredients are here, but the chef’s not in the kitchen. So now, it’s about bringing all the pieces together to orchestrate the “meal” and synthesize the visual, performing and literary arts. There are lots of layers of art happening in Savannah.
Clinton: I agree. My question is where do we focus on turning it into (a destination)? Do we focus on the marketing effort? Do we focus on the infrastructure? What is that chef’s position who’s not in the kitchen?
I think it’s really about marketing Savannah as an arts destination. As more arts appreciators come to Savannah because they are enticed by that marketing, all those elements will start to come together.
Jerome: I think it’s important when we think of any location as an arts destination to think of who we are appealing to and what their expectations are.
I was recently in Barcelona. Talk about an arts destination! And I notice that as I’m sitting in one of the main tourist spots there, the people who comprise the tourist crowd seem very different than those in Savannah. They seem much more international, having come from sophisticated cities that are also art destinations in their own way. To host a tourist crowd with that level of expectation, you really need to have your act together.
I think that’s the level of challenge we should be taking on.
Christen: It’s true. We have an enormously rich base of artistic talent that draws inspiration from the environment and history that make up Savannah. But what’s lacking is a tourist who knows to look for that base.
I often think of us as a great arts college town—which we are—but with all of the permanent artists in residence, we have so much potential to grow beyond that. Once we do, it will allow those who are here to study to gain so much more from their experience. One of the ways we will achieve that is through synthesis and discourse—doing exactly what we’re doing right now at the table.
In the visual art world, we often work in isolation out of necessity, although many artists choose to work in collaboration for different bits of time. But that isolation makes it hard see the whole picture of the art community.
You mentioned that there are a lot of ingredients in the kitchen, but no chef. Who is the chef? Does it require someone at a political level? Administrative? Community? Or do you need someone at each of those levels working in tandem?
Christen: It will have to be a collaborative effort, but one of the first steps will be education. How do you educate the artists, the public and the city officials on what the tremendous benefit is—both economically and for quality of life?
Clinton: Yes, education will open up resources to artists and the organizations that they’re working with. We don’t even know what we could be capable of with those tools at our disposal, because they currently aren’t available.
I really do believe that art can change the world—not in some frou frou way—but just in terms of better communication and health. That’s really where I see art coming in and shaking stuff up in Savannah. But it will require the whole vertebrae on the back of the “Savannah animal” to be linked and in communication. It’s still a little disjointed. We need some chiropractors to come in and give it a good massage. (We all laugh.)
Jerome: A biggie for me is sustainability. What’s different about what we’re doing now as opposed to what others have tried before? How sustainable is it? Longevity takes commitment, and it takes avoiding certain things that have proven to be pitfalls in the past. That was one of the main reasons I was excited about ARC Savannah. Unlike others who have come and gone before, advocates and leaders who represent the structure and the vision are working together.
What are some good concrete examples of synthesis you’ve seen in other places that you think could help here?
Jerome: In every city that I’ve ever lived in or I’ve visited that has a robust artistic community, there’s always a very strong department of cultural affairs doing the advocating—almost like a local art czar—so that grassroots organizations and individuals have that city support.
Clinton: One of the main goals of ARC and ArtRise is to connect the creative community and relay those messages on to the administration in the political realm. We say, “Hey, we represent a sizeable population in Savannah that’s interested in seeing more public art and seeing more arts accessibility and funding for the arts.” We’re creating a voice from the public that will encourage the political side. It will be easier for the city to work with ARC or ArtRise Savannah than it will be for them to work with a lot of individual artists.
Christen: Grassroots will absolutely be the way that it will work. Where we’ve found a pattern of success within Savannah is by going the grassroots route…
Clinton: …coordinating all the advocacy into one voice, so that the political realm can hear us better. Instead of just a noisy crowd, it’s a booming, organized voice.
Christen: That also enhances our ability to disseminate information back to the artists and art advocates.
Jerome: In terms of destination and, we’re going to need city buy-in—well beyond what they are giving now. We’re basically saying that we can’t just wait for that to happen, so we’re going to do our part and hoping that they step up to the plate.
Christen: You know, there are plenty of amazing models in what other cities are doing, but we have a great model for what works here: the way different organizations work together to preserve and interact with the historic nature of the city. Let’s elevate the arts in that same direction, where you have not-for-profit organizations like the Historic Savannah Foundation working with a certain type of agenda, and then the city adds its pieces. There are all these different departments that play a variety of roles in manifesting the amazing preservation work that makes Savannah such a huge draw.
That’s an amazing benefit of coming to Savannah. You have all of this history and all of this art.
One of our goals is to build off of that. For instance, when you got to VisitSavannah.com, arts and culture are grouped together. All that history is in with the arts. We have so much of both here that we deserve to have two pages of each. That amazingly vital combination is what sets us apart from other cities. That would be our biggest selling angle.
After two hours of energizing conversation about the keys to arts success in Savannah—such as nurturing a community of collectors, determining the monetary value of art, art education, the psychology of art appreciation, and creating working studio and gallery corridors along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Waters Avenue—something becomes crystal clear: we need to keep talking.
Each one of these topics deserves further reflection and action. But coming to this realization is anything but disheartening. It means we have a strong network of artists and appreciators who want to move forward—together.
American realist—and recent Telfair Museums exhibitor—Robert Henri said, “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” The consensus around the table is that Savannah will get there. For the vibrant community that lives and creates in Savannah, reaching that state will involve transformative collaborations and continuing conversation.