The idea for public art in Tuscaloosa came about in the spring of 2017, when the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama led a community benchmarking trip to Greenville, South Carolina. The trip was for approximately 75 people and included members of the Chamber of Commerce, city officials, and other active members of the community. Jim Page, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, said the trip was meant to gain perspective and insight from Greenville’s thriving downtown in the hopes of using those ideas to change Tuscaloosa for the better.
While in Greenville, Page said several trip members took notice of the city’s thriving public art program and the use of this art to serve Greenville and make it a more vibrant place.
Bill Wright, the owner of Royal Fine Cleaners, was one such trip member. Wright said he was “not an artsy personal at all” before the trip, but he became interested in public art upon seeing it all over downtown Greenville.
Upon returning to Tuscaloosa, Wright said he was determined to start something in Tuscaloosa to show the importance of public art. He consulted with Page and several city officials, and eventually decided to place a sculpture outside his University Boulevard storefront.
“I knew I could not do something right away to make public art prominent in the entire Tuscaloosa community,” Wright said. “But I wanted a piece of art in front of my storefront to hopefully start something and inspire other businesses to do the same thing…since its installation earlier this year, I have already had several businesses reach out to me to help them through the process of getting public art.”
Sandra Wolfe, director of the Tuscaloosa Arts Council, also attended the benchmarking trip and said the Greenville trip attendees “really got fired up” about public art and wanted to see a vibrant arts community in Tuscaloosa.
“Public art is not a quick thing, and it takes a lot of time and work,” Wolfe said. “A group of us started meeting almost immediately after the trip to figure out how to make these art dreams a reality.”
Wolfe was a central component of this team, which worked to see how the city could invest in public art in an effective and efficient way. The team also included Jim Harrison, owner of Harrison Galleries, Tera Tubbs, the Executive Director of Infrastructure and Public Services for the city, and Craig Wedderspoon, a professor of sculpture at The University of Alabama.
Wedderspoon said he had been working for years to promote public art in the community, so he was excited to join a coordinated effort to work toward this task. Outdoor public art is his specialty, and he said it is vital for the Tuscaloosa community.
“Cultural enrichment through public art improves economic development in a city, but it also improves the community by making it a more vibrant place to live, work, and visit,” Wedderspoon said.
Wedderspoon and Wolfe said their team met monthly to discuss a public art initiative and eventually decided on proposing a permanent public art committee with guidelines to the City Council. Wolfe said she spent hours reviewing proposals from other communities like Greenville, and the team discussed the guidelines and specifics with local attorneys and city officials. She said she greatly appreciated and valued the City Council for approving the proposal, as well as city employees for playing such an active role in its creation.
Tera Tubbs was one of the main city employees who helped bring the public art committee to fruition. She said she attended the Greenville trip as a city employee to focus on infrastructure but took a personal interest in the city’s use of art.
Tubbs said the new public art committee will focus on bringing more art to public spaces in Tuscaloosa and will help businesses do the same on private property. The committee will work on the entire process of public art, from accepting proposals to installation to continual maintenance. She said the committee will also focus on placing the public art in an appropriate and functional place, making it a “beneficial component of the community and accessible to all citizens” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The committee, which meets monthly, consists of representatives from various areas of Tuscaloosa, including The Arts and Humanities Council, Kentuck Art Center, The University of Alabama Department of Art, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, the city’s Urban Development and Infrastructure and Public Services departments, and a City Councilmember from the district for proposed art.
Even though the committee was just recently approved, Tubbs said they already have requests for public art, including Egan’s Bar and Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers. Wolfe, Wedderspoon, and Tubbs, all members of the public art committee, said they are looking forward to making Tuscaloosa a unique and special place through the arts.
As for Wright, he said he knows that public art is will provide an economic boost to the Tuscaloosa community, but his appreciation for art has grown ever since his trip to Greenville with Page and the Chamber of Commerce. He is thrilled to have played a small role in the public art initiative in the Tuscaloosa community and said he is looking forward to seeing it grow over time.
“I have leased the current artwork in front of my storefront for two years,” Wright said. “I am already ready to start looking for the next piece…because public art is one piece of the puzzle to make Tuscaloosa an even better city.”