Charleston, WV: Charleston Public Art
How can a city build upon its own momentum to continue the growth of public art in its community?
Over the last several years, Charleston, West Virginia, has been developing its public arts and culture programming. The city wanted to continue to expand these well-received programs but it needed a way to do so systematically. With this project, the city set out to establish guidelines that would shape the future of its public art program.
West Virginia’s capital city, Charleston, doubles as its cultural hub—home to museums, theaters, and a diverse roster of events and festivals. Situated in the southwest region of the state, the city is surrounded by a picturesque and rugged topography of mountains and hills, with the Kanawha River winding its way through the city center. With a population of just over 50,000, Charleston is West Virginia’s largest city, with a workday population of 100,000 and a metropolitan area of 300,000.
Nestled amongst the mountains, Charleston lies along two rivers: the Elk and the Kanawha. The per capita income is $30,794 and nearly 24% of children live under the federal poverty level. The downtown area swells with workers during the workday but it tends to empty out in evenings and on weekends. There is a growing arts community in Charleston. Over the past decade, the city has expanded its offerings of arts and culture programming in the form of festivals and events, including the FestivALL Charleston, monthly Art Walks, and the opening of the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia. Additional cultural offerings are provided through a wide variety of smaller, nonprofit arts groups that focus on introducing and developing both performing and visual artists. The city has also made investments in several public art projects, supporting local artists.
In a way, the local needs are a byproduct of the city’s own success. The art programs and initiatives it was implementing were popular but there were no citywide guidelines for public art. For example, the existing public art program was implemented in a piecemeal fashion, so it did not have a systematic approach to address the quality and maintenance of the pieces. For starters, the city needed to inventory the existing public art and create a database. To increase opportunities for public art, the city would need to devise a strategy for how to most effectively shape the public art program, from commissioning to long-term maintenance.
Charleston set out to establish a well-funded and well- organized public art focus throughout the city’s public domain. To accomplish this focus, the city determined it would need to institute an administrative framework for public art that established best practices and supported community engagement. It also wanted to add to the diversity of public art, incorporating different locations, media, and project types. The vision also consisted of an inventory of the existing public art to inform the new guidelines, including location, artist name, date of commissioning, and condition of the piece. Underlying all of these objectives would be an emphasis on education, using curricula, workshops, and signage to provide community education; as Susie Salisbury, Vice President of the Charleston Area Alliance puts it, “we plan to use public art to increase the livability of the Charleston.”
The Charleston Area Alliance served as the project manager and the coordinator of the initial application. The City of Charleston served as the project manager, fiscal agent, and, going forward, the long-term manager of the public art system. The Office of the City Manager was closely involved throughout, instigating the project at the outset and facilitating it throughout. As City Manager David Molgaard says, “Charleston has a successful history of creating public and private partnerships for improvements in our city.” This project was no exception. The Charleston Area Alliance, an economic development organization, provided development support, while the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority provided matching funds. Representatives from each of the project partners served on a steering committee over the life of the project.
The city issued a Request for Qualifications to art professionals aimed at documenting the city’s existing inventory of art. This competitive application process was led by Molgaard. Once chosen, professional consultants Renee Piechocki and McKay Lodge of Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory, Inc. catalogued public art and worked with local artists and designers to develop policies and guidelines for its administration. Throughout this phase, the team regularly held public meetings, inviting input from Charleston residents. The process culminated in documentation that the city could use in its arts and culture planning, including recommendations for how best to commission, implement, and maintain diverse examples of public art.
The most visible outcome of the project was the launch of a website, www.publicartcharleston.org, where the city’s 45 piece public art collection would be catalogued and the full public art plan made available to residents. Behind this public face, though, the project developed a robust set of guidelines that will help the city make structured decisions about its future commitments to public art, helping it to reach the broadest possible audience in affordable and sustainable ways. They also produced an internal database for the public art collection. The plan includes artist selection processes, collection management, guidelines for public art signage, and suggested future projects. As Salisbury says, “the public art plan is full of recommendations for pushing a well-organized public art commission in the city.” The city is currently developing this commission, which will oversee the collection and measure the impact of public art on the community. Already the project has resulted in a growing public awareness about the city’s art assets. According to Salisbury, “one of the biggest effects of the project was the increased number of people who have a better understanding and appreciation for our public art.”
Before the project ever started, Charleston published Public Art Guidebook, which outlines the city’s collection of publicly accessible art. As part of this project, they republished it (including on www.publicartcharleston.org), and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “The response to our printed guidebook took us all by surprise,” says Salisbury. “We had no idea the public was craving such information.” Since the original publication, more than 10 pieces have been discovered and will be added to the future second edition. Though the community had a high degree of excitement about art in the city, there was a remarkably nuanced conversation about the process of adding it to the city. “Our neighborhoods are much more interested in establishing public art as part of their community development efforts,” Salisbury says. “However, they are now taking a harder look at the realities of long term maintenance and commissioning as a result of our project.” In response, the public art program was able to secure funding from the City of Charleston for a new Public Art Director position and received an additional $20,000 for their Arts Development Fund, which will be used to maintain the most at-risk pieces and seed a new public art project.
Public Art Charleston, WV
Online home of Charleston's public art, including online guidebook
- The City of Charleston
- Municipal Beautification Commission
- Charleston Urban Renewal Authority
- Charleston Area Alliance
- Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia,
- FestivALL Charleston
- Arts Council of Kanawha Valley
- City of Charleston
- Charleston Urban Renewal Authority
- Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation
When asked what advice they would pass onto others, project manager Susie Salisbury said, “Make sure public art collection maintenance is an integral part of any public art plan.”
- Suggested future public art projects
- New types of projects to undertake
- Administrative framework for planning, design, review and funding
- Staffing recommendations
- Artist selection processes
- Collection management
- Community engagement
- Guidelines for public art signage
- It also can include samples of project evaluation forms, gift policies, deaccessioning policies, and design commission ordinance.