Atlanta’s penchant for the wrecking ball is at once the most defining characteristic of our city and also its most derided. The Art on the Atlanta BeltLine program exemplifies this Atlanta ethos, and has taken flak for it as well. For each of its seven years, Art on the Atlanta BeltLine has engaged dozens of new artists to create temporary public artworks on the popular promenade. Temporary stands as the key word for Art on the BeltLine, and is the most contested feature of the program. When I talk with art-world people, they speak of the program with disdain. It can never be good enough, grand enough, real enough. Folks complain that there is no longterm vision for the installations. ArtsATL published an unflattering piece about Art on the BeltLine quoting everyone from Victoria Camblin (editor of Art Papers) and Ryan Gravel (the BeltLine is based on his Georgia Tech master’s thesis) to artists who participated in the program—all saying Art on the BeltLine hasn’t lived up to its ambitions.
Detractors of Art on the BeltLine perhaps misunderstand the goals for the project, or perhaps disagree with its mission of impermanence and strategy of quantity over quality. While I, too, want distinctive, permanent public art installations in Atlanta (and not something like Sol LeWitt’s phoned-in 54 Columns), Art on the BeltLine isn’t the place for that. The temporary nature of the installations means that artists can experiment, and fail. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a drawback, but an awesome feature of the program.
Art on the BeltLine deserves a bigger budget and presence, but I don’t think plunking a bunch of money down to get Anish Kapoor to do a piece on the BeltLine is the right answer. Having more artwork, even if it’s lower quality, that changes annually is more engaging to the average person than a few keynote pieces would be. Art on the BeltLine sparks development, and that’s a great asset for our community. Call it art-washing if you wish, but I think this adds value to work artists do in our community.
I’ve come to appreciate all the work that goes into producing Art on the BeltLine, even if other art lovers pooh-pooh it. A few people put a great deal of work into the project, and without the robust budget you’d see in bigger cities. In researching Art on the BeltLine, I found many surprising details that gave me a better understanding of the program.
For the many people who will see some of these details and act shocked—outraged!—at how intertwined Art on the BeltLine is with private interests, all I can say is: Welcome to Atlanta. A good bit of business boosterism is necessary to launch any big idea—whether it’s the Cotton States Exhibition of 1895 or the 1996 Olympics. Understanding how our system works is necessary to making the most out of it.
So, here I present ten interesting tidbits about Art on the Atlanta BeltLine:
1. A complex public-private partnership manages Art on the BeltLine.
Art on the Atlanta BeltLine is programmed by Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and receives support from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and public and private donors. Confused? Atlanta BeltLine Inc. is a private company that oversees and executes the BeltLine vision, and they work closely with the city and rely on public funding. Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is an independent nonprofit that raises corporate, private, and philanthropic money for the BeltLine, and it also focuses on public engagement and advocacy.
What this means is that Art on the BeltLine maintains close relationships with the business and development interests of the BeltLine, even though the end product is primarily about public engagement. It’s an example of how business interests come first in this city.
2. Art on the BeltLine doesn’t mind failure.
Recently, I noticed several artworks falling apart, in particular, the sculpture Holding Pattern by George King Architects, which became a safety hazard shortly after its installation. The work, sited just off the Eastside Trail, featured a suspended funnel of “paper” airplanes, each made out of sheets of aluminum. These had been bolted together and hung by a flimsy chain, and pieces had begun to fall off. I counted 19 sharp-edged sheets of aluminum on the ground. The collapsing piece hung overhead like a Sword of Damocles.
That same week I saw the piece Voluptuous Vaults by Tristan Al-Haddad go up at Ponce City Market, and it too was quickly destroyed. The artist had installed a canopy of gold balloons, which was grounded with cement and steel structures. In its full glory, this was the most impressive piece of BeltLine art I had ever seen. Within a few days, the canopy was taken down to street level, where it became a play structure for little kids who liked to pop the balloons. The balloons wouldn’t have lasted long anyway, but it was a bummer for the piece to not live up to its potential.
In both cases, high winds were to blame. It’s important to give artists the opportunity to fail and learn from the experience. Art on the BeltLine does this well.
3. Not all the artists are local to Atlanta.
The George King behind Holding Pattern is not the local artist and filmmaker of the same name. This George King is an architect in London. I always thought that Art on the BeltLine was strictly local, but they do indeed accept proposals from artists anywhere. Elan Buchen, program manager, says that this is an effort to make the program known beyond our area.
4. BeltLine doesn’t always provide all the funds necessary to complete a piece.
In 2015, the largest amount given to an artist was $6,000. The average was $2,600. Some sculptures cost a lot more than this to produce, so BeltLine may be one of many funders for a specific piece (or the artist is expected to shell out the rest). In the case of David Landis’s sculpture Northern White, a stainless steel sculpture of a rhinoceros head, BeltLine issued the funds to complete the piece, which had been in progress when proposed for the BeltLine. This sculpture became a permanent acquisition.
5. If the piece looks nice and isn’t falling apart, it might become a permanent acquisition.
As with the Landis sculpture, some works have become permanent installations—mostly due to a combination of popularity and durability. Murals aren’t painted over every year. Some pieces prove to be very popular, and artists are provided additional compensation for them to become permanent installations. One such example is Leslie Tharp’s Startle, located at a winding exit down to Old Fourth Ward Park. Made out of wrought iron, it features two deer, one standing at attention, the other mid-leap into the grass. Unfortunately, passersby like to climb and sit on these sculptures, which often damages them. Buchen had to work with a metalsmith to retrofit a grounding rod that could support the sculpture, as well as prevent it from breaking if someone climbs on top. This is where the “temporary” distinction for Art on the BeltLine becomes important, because long-term durability issues are not always taken into account on first installation.
6. Even though it is temporary, upkeep is a perpetual issue for all the art.
Graffiti is a problem for artworks on the BeltLine. BeltLine keeps spot-color paint to touch up murals that are defaced. Graffiti is sometimes scrubbed off sculptures. In collaboration with the BeltLine, Atlanta Celebrates Photography presented The Fence, a 700+ foot long vinyl banner bearing images by international photographers. Some of the images were so popular that in the first year, some were cut out of the banner. The entire banner had to be reprinted and replaced. Buchen says it hasn’t been a problem since then
7. The trail is thoughtfully curated for your enjoyment.
A great deal of planning goes into making Art on the BeltLine a cohesive experience. Sometimes eager business owners will put up signs or advertisements along the sidewalk. Those are taken down and returned to the owner, with a request not to do that again. Unauthorized art usually gets taken away as well. A broken toilet that said “Trump” on it lasted a day on the BeltLine before it was removed. Some rogue art gets a free pass. Tiny Doors ATL is an example of that, although it has recently become involved officially with BeltLine. Sometimes the art can’t easily be removed, such as the vintage camera epoxied beneath the Highland Avenue overpass, so it becomes an unofficial permanent installation.
8. A complicated system of property ownership affects what and where you see art along the BeltLine.
Some property owners, like Paris on Ponce, own the land right up to the BeltLine and will install their own pieces — or advertisements. BeltLine isn’t able to intervene here. The space under Highland Avenue, for example, is owned by BeltLine, and is likewise covered with a commissioned mural by Kyle Brooks. The underpass at Freedom Parkway, however, is owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation. This space is mostly covered with graffiti, and has become an unofficial free zone for street artists. BeltLine worked with the adjacent Freedom Lofts to commission a mural by olive47, and it remains up. At the nearby Two Urban Licks restaurant, a BeltLine-sanctioned mural by Addison Karl and Jarus was recently painted over by the property owner, whose ownership trumps the BeltLine’s jurisdiction.
9. BeltLine is a trademark.
The legal issues surrounding the name BeltLine have been peculiar. BeltLine sent a strongly worded email to a woman running the Facebook page “Humans of the BeltLine,” claiming that she was infringing on their trademark. (To be honest, this seem too aggressive of trademark policing. The artist should have been more worried about infringing on “Humans of New York” … which was the real copyright infringement here). A business opened with the name Atlanta BeltLine Bike. After a similar action, it’s now called Atlanta Bicycle Barn.
10. There are more design programs than just Art On the BeltLine.
Have you noticed a lot of benches popping up along the BeltLine? In 2015, BeltLine issued a call for proposals where “The objective is to develop a bench type that uses local (within 250 miles) materials (wood, stone, and or locally fabricated metal). The style of the bench should be clearly recognizable, cost effective to manufacture, and easy to maintain. Benches may be required in various quantities over the next 20 years.” Four different prototypes were chosen, each with their own unique style. Design firms Gensler; Hill, Foley, and Rossi; and OrchestraOne, along with sculptor Mitch Ryerson contributed benches.
Atlanta is a phoenix—a city rising from the ashes of its old self to be born shining and new. General Sherman set in place the defining feature of our city when he burned it to the ground. We are a city always becoming—a perpetually cresting wave of potential. Atlanta is always reaching, striving, becoming something bigger, better, and newer. Let’s celebrate that, instead of complaining that our cultural institutions aren’t living up to our unrealistic expectations.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.