By Laura Riggs
Americans for the Arts defines public art to include murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated architectural or landscape architectural work, community art, digital new media, performances, and festivals. Public art takes a wide range of forms, shapes, and sizes, but murals are often the most recognizable. Whether you are downtown, on the Westside, in Durkeeville, or out at the beaches, Jacksonville’s public art offerings have expanded tremendously, with murals as the anchor to provide a positive impact and help foster a cultural identity for the city. Considering that the majority of the city’s murals have only materialized within the past five years, it’s easy to take for granted that Jacksonville’s urban core is as colorful as it is today.
Where once stood a singular mural by Mac Truque on the side of Burrito Gallery (“Midnight City” 2005), Adams Street is now teeming with dozens of large pieces extending from Talleyrand to Myrtle. Part of this collection was added when One Spark kicked off in 2013. The annual event brought innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, makers, and enthusiasm into the city for a few years. Genuine excitement over a possible revitalization of the urban core quickly fizzled because city planners didn’t have a meaningful strategy to bring downtown back to life. Then, in 2016, despite the lack of support from the city, ArtRepublic began curating a diverse collection of work from internationally known artists accustomed to creating murals on a large scale.
ArtRepublic’s dedication to cultural development over the past five years has prompted a newfound appreciation for public art and increased demand from the private sector to continue the beautification of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. This has also enabled the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville to add to the Art in Public Places collection and empowered initiatives and organizations such as Color Jax Blue of the 6 Ft. Away Gallery, Black Mural Map, Murray Hill Preservation Association, and Springfield Preservation and Revitalization (SPAR) to enhance their areas with a diverse array of work by Jacksonville artists. Each new mural elicits excitement and conversation from the public, generating deeper connections and engagement within each community.
Initially, Jessica Santiago, founder of ArtRepublic, sought building owners who appreciated the value of public art, not just for our inhabitants’ physical and mental well-being, but also for the city’s economic growth. She believes, “art is the best medium for creating great change to any area or culture. Artists take us to places we can’t go ourselves; they are cultural luminaries, and their artwork offers us a way of communicating to each other on a higher frequency that opens hearts and minds and inspires change.” Now, it is developers, architects, and cities like Atlantic Beach seeking out the work for their communities. “It was tough at first to get people to see the vision, but now that they get it, they want more of it,” Santiago states.
As Jacksonville is in the midst of a public art renaissance with new work supported by so many, it’s important to note that the city’s Art in Public Places program is still one of the lowest funded programs in the country. During a 2018 panel discussion on the impact of the arts on the local economy at Jacksonville University, Preston Haskell, founder of the Haskell Company, recognized that the city invests nearly $3 million per year into the arts, but that, “[they] should be giving $8 million to $10 million a year to arts organizations.” In addition, the state of Florida has steadily decreased its allocations to the arts from its annual budget. In 2014, $43.3 million was allocated across four arts and cultural-related categories. Last year, that number dropped to $13.6 million for only one category, even though the state of Florida and municipalities realized a nine dollar return for every dollar invested through these grants.
Haskell is an avid collector and generous supporter of local arts organizations; he has filled the company’s headquarters with an extensive collection of modern art (both inside and outside the building). He believes that when people are surrounded by art they, “are more engaged and their projects are better.” This is part of the reason why he established the gallery at Jacksonville’s International Airport more than 20 years ago and why he grants millions of dollars to local museums and arts organizations, including ArtRepublic. Haskell regards Jacksonville as, “having a wonderful visual and performing arts scene [but], we are not properly supporting those artists.” He also started his own sculpture initiative to help, “make downtown a dramatic and beautiful arts district.” Haskell notes that public art, “will make our city even more beautiful, more attractive, and more widely known as a wonderfully supportive city for the arts.”