For this year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP) public art project, Gifted, curator Beth Lilly and volunteers handed out no less than 1,200 signed, limited edition photographs by local artists. Now that the month-long project is complete, I took the opportunity to interview Lilly and find out how it went.
How did you develop the idea for Gifted?
“I saw the call for proposals, and it sparked a conversation with my husband about what public art projects we’ve liked and what projects we haven’t. Since Atlanta is a car-centric city, I always thought it limited exposure to have a single installation in one location. There is no center to Atlanta, so very few people would actually see a destination piece. So it had to be something that could have a presence in all the different areas. One of our favorite public work projects from ACP was Jason Fulford‘s placemat project. I had a blast collecting them and loved the idea that I got something tangible to keep for myself. I mean, that’s one of the interesting things about photography—it can be made in multiples. At the same time, the economy had just tanked, and we were worried about how artists were going to survive. We thought it would be a shame for all that money to go to one person. So all these thoughts kind of jelled into the project that we originally were calling Automatic For the People or Atlanta Photography Stimulus Package. What we really liked was how it brought more awareness to the fantastic talent we have here in Atlanta that is so overlooked, and we also thought it might even broaden the art audience. One idea with so many sides to it ….”
About how many volunteers handed out the photos?
“The project really hinged on myself and one of the artists personally doing the ‘gifting,’ plus one volunteer to help. I scheduled a total of 14 days to give out prints—12 days of giving out 100 prints each day, and two were extras in case of rain delays. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to give out 100 prints WITH conversations. We weren’t just handing these out like handbills, you know—we had a conversation with each recipient about the value of the print and who the artist was, and we asked them whether they collected (my dream was to spawn a whole bunch of new art fans/collectors). In the end, we had three volunteers who made it out to the streets with us plus about six more who helped me and ACP staff ‘package,’ or bag, the prints. Each print was in an archival clear plastic sleeve along with a card that had the artist statement and website on one side, and the other side featured a project statement by me, some information about ACP, and of course, included the blog address.”
How long did it typically take to gift the photos on each date?
“About 2 hours.”
Where did volunteers gift the photographs?
“Le Flash/Castleberry Hill; Starlight Drive-In (the concession stand); Grady Hospital and the Georgia State area on Piedmont; Oakhurst; East Atlanta; Centennial Park (just prior to a Falcons game); Little Five Points (just prior to their Halloween parade); Piedmont Park; 14th Street and Peachtree, across from Colony Square; Fulton County Tag Office (in front of that building); Westview between Morehouse and Spelman campuses; Silver Comet Trail/Chastain Park ….”
As the curator, how did you choose these locations?
“Very carefully, ha ha! This was a tough but highly important task. I was trying to think of places where all kinds of people went, and I had to find spots where there was a lot of foot traffic AND that were public property so I didn’t have to mess with permissions (one exception—the Starlight Drive-In. I was willing to make the effort because it’s so cool). There are a few places that draw people from all walks of life—you know, everybody has to go to the tag office, all kinds of people go down to Grady (hopefully to visit a patient). I had a big map and detailed knowledge of the city from my Monster project, so I picked places in all the quadrants: South, East, West, North.”
I read on the Gifted website that some locations didn’t pan out. What happened?
“Well, it rained the night we were at the Starlight, so attendance was pretty sparse. At Grady, people would walk extra blocks just to avoid us. The staff there is so used to people trying to sell or market stuff, they wouldn’t give us a chance to explain the project or that the prints were free. That was the overriding theme of gifting—in peoples’ experience, the ONLY strangers approaching you on the street want to sell you something or evangelize. When we could get them to stop and talk, they still couldn’t fathom that we didn’t want money, that we really, truly were giving art to them for free. That’s kind of a statement on our culture.”
Did recipients approach the volunteers out of curiosity after seeing the suitcase and its contents, or did volunteers invite them over?
“God no! You had to physically place yourself in front of someone and declare very quickly, ‘We’re doing a public art project—giving prints for FREE to the public.’ Over the 12 days, I had the patter down. I experimented with what words would quickly get the idea across fast enough for them to stop and listen. But then I found you had to be sincere and real every time—anything else smacked of sales and advertising and wouldn’t work. Like once, I held up prints and spontaneously shouted, ‘This is what public art looks like!’ That stopped about five people in their tracks who came over to see what it was about. I did that again later and no one even looked at me. People can tell when your words are sincere and when it’s just some tag line.”
Did recipients continue to be suspicious that the photos weren’t truly free (with no strings attached)?
“Yes, even after a long conversation they were still trying to give us money as a donation. It was so fun refusing to take money!”
Was there a typical response to being gifted a work of art?
“Amazement, joy, disbelief. We got hugs all the time. Hugs! And some people sincerely thanked us for what we were doing.”
Were certain responses more characteristic to some people than to others?
“Young people were the most likely to stop and give us a chance to explain the project. Affluent older people tended to dodge us. I guess the wealthier you are, the more solicitations you get, the more jaded you get.”
Did recipients show a preference for certain photographs? If so, did this change based on location?
“Surprisingly, no! I think I did a really good job picking imagery that would resonate on some level with almost everyone. That was crucial to the project. Inexplicably, one image might be slightly more popular at one location, but, then at another location, it would not be, and there was no rhyme or reason to it.”
What was one (or more) of your favorite responses to the gift?
“The lady who jumped up and down and screamed like she was on a game show. She’d read about the project and so wanted a print but the odds were impossible that she’d ever run into us. That’s one of the things I really loved about the project—it was like a lottery. Everyone had an equal chance of being gifted.”
What did you learn from curating Gifted?
“No matter what you think of a group of people, you are wrong. A conversation, face-to-face with a stranger, is an amazingly candid, open, positive, and loving experience. I learned I really like talking to strangers, and also that just about everyone loves art. They do!”
Would you curate a public art project like this again? If so, what (if anything) would you do differently?
“Doubtful. My own work is calling me for some TLC. I have a great respect now for curators and exhibition organizers, etc. What a lot of work! And I wouldn’t do anything different for this project. It was better than I thought it would be. It was a fantastic experience.”
Please visit the Gifted website for additional information about the project. Recipients are encouraged to blog about their experiences on the website, and also to share images of their artwork in its new home.