By Laura Riggs | Photos by Matt Bluejay / Laird / Tony Smailagic
In 2015 ArtRepublic put forth a five-year plan to show Jacksonville how the power of world-class public art could engage the community and spawn economic development. ArtRepublic’s founder and CEO, Jessica Santiago, partnered with the private sector to create a massive transformation to downtown Jacksonville through annual productions of high-quality public art, events, and exhibitions. Between 2016 and 2019 Santiago curated several murals each year that have rejuvenated the landscape and elevated the city in many ways. By creating a vibrant experience with inspiring contemporary artwork around the city, Jacksonville can build an identity that will attract new residents and tourists alike.
This privately funded public art collection now comprises over 50 murals by renowned artists from 15 countries. Not only has ArtRepublic helped give the city global recognition, but it has established relationships between local artists and community stakeholders with creatives around the world along with dozens of new patrons invested in arts and culture. For the final year of its Community Cultural Development program, Santiago wanted the installations to reflect the city’s progressive roots, its influential civil rights leaders, and its courageous artists. Jacksonville’s rich history of achievement by African Americans and people of color has been kept underground for decades, and it was long past time to bring these stories to light.
Planning for the final exhibition kicked off in November 2019. Santiago began consulting with key stakeholders in the community on which narratives would be best suited for each selected location. The artists would then use that feedback to inform their work, installed in three different phases. However, the pandemic put the project on a temporary pause as ArtRepublic entered the final stages of fundraising. While protests demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism raged over the summer, Jacksonville was chosen as the alternate host city for the Republican National Convention (RNC). Santiago knew there was an even greater urgency to share the city’s untold history.
“When we heard the RNC was coming to Jacksonville, we knew we had to respond culturally,” she says, and phase one was quickly activated. Four murals showcasing some of the city’s musical history were completed downtown on Daily’s Place and the Chamber of Commerce building, along Forsyth Street, and in LaVilla. One of the murals in particular, “Uplift” by Steven Teller, was themed after “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson. Born in Jacksonville, the brothers were artists, educators, and civil rights activists during the Harlem Renaissance. Their poem was first performed at Stanton High School to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900. Often referred to as the Black National Anthem, it was essential for Teller to highlight the song to contrast between the past and the present. Using black and white colors to represent the past and vibrant colors for the future, Teller weaves ribbons of green and yellow to depict singing of the anthem by the mural’s namesake and symbolize how our future is inextricably joined with our past to shape the identity of our community.