Beautifying a downtown alley connecting West Clayton and West Washington streets, the newly installed Athens Mural Alley consists of a series of paintings that serve as a testament to the resiliency of the local arts community. Reflecting the theme “Here & Now 2021,” the seven 5-feet-by-5-feet panels depict designs that interpret ideas of “recovery, advocacy, activism, optimism and hope.” Selected from a pool of over 40 applications, artists include John Ahee, Tayler Ayers, Luka Carter, Maria Elias, Elinor Saragoussi, Tori Watson and Beaux Xavier.
The Athens Mural Alley was co-organized between the Athens Area Arts Council, Athens Downtown Development Authority and Lyndon House Arts Center. The public art project got off the ground after the AAAC’s proposal was selected to receive one of 50 Arts in Community Resilience Awards. These $2,000 awards, distributed by the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission, reflect a major effort of the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government to support the local arts community after the COVID-19 outbreak.
Additional funding was provided by the ADDA through a grant from the Georgia Main Street Innovation Grant Program. This pandemic recovery program by Main Street America provided $10,000 to five creative revitalization projects across the state that address the financial and cultural impacts of the pandemic.
Each participating artist was provided with a panel, $750 stipend and two months of studio time at the LHAC. Additional funds were used to install festive string lighting and wash the walls ahead of installation. Organizers hope to rotate the alley’s murals every few years to give additional artists an opportunity to display their work.
“Art in the public encourages the community to build a sense of pride and ownership, both of which lead to care,” says Didi Dunphy, program supervisor of the LHAC. “The downtown district belongs to all of us, including the overlooked areas such as alleyways. These need as much, if not more, care and attention within our shared urban landscape, not just for beautification and expression of our Athens creative sector, but for safety and cleanliness.”
Alley activation has become an international trend in which alleys—traditionally rather gritty and overlooked—are enhanced through visual art displays, seating areas, structures to create shade or greenery in order to establish pedestrian spaces that are more attractive, welcoming and engaging. Installation in unlikely places—these “alleries,” if you will—increases the accessibility of public artwork and rewards pedestrians who pay attention to their surroundings.
“Some people may never walk into a brick and mortar art museum,” says Linda Ford, director of business services at the ADDA. “Public art turns downtown into an ‘outdoor museum’ that allows anyone to experience art and appreciate artists.”
During the pandemic’s onset, many artists faced a particularly precarious situation. Those who relied on markets, galleries or studio sales were left stranded by widespread event cancelations, as were those whose income had been previously supplemented through second jobs in other industries severely impacted by the pandemic such as the entertainment, hospitality, retail and service sectors. Furthermore, as the Black Lives Matter movement captured the nation’s attention, the arts industry was asked to confront its own institutionalized biases and recalibrate to better insure inclusiveness, diversity and equity in the arts. The Athens Mural Alley specifically encouraged artists identifying as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ to apply.
“Prior to the landmark resiliency awards voted on by mayor and commission, a number of arts advocates representing our local arts organizations had been focusing on the realistic fragility of our artist community,” says Didi Dunphy, at the LHAC. “The Athens Mural Alley project considered this vulnerability particularly of those identifying as minorities in both race and gender. As we begin recovering from the pandemic, it is painfully obvious that the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities do not receive the same level of care as others. Our partnership group, encouraging and elevating the creative sector, wanted to be sure to put diversity, equity, inclusion and advocacy front and forward.”
The new panels join Taylor Shaw’s 2020 alley mural, “Greetings from Athens,” which resembles a vintage postcard and is decorated with a collage of local music references. Both Shaw’s mural and Krysia Ara’s glittering mosaics that beautify the bases of light poles around downtown were funded by the ADDA. The ADDA also offers a public art grant to businesses in the hopes of further supporting the arts downtown.
“When visitors walk down the Mural Alley, they will get a glimpse into Athens’ incredible creative community,” says Ford.
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