Huntsville, AL: Huntsville Public Art Plan
How can a mid-sized city integrate its ad hoc public art efforts into a cohesive plan for supporting community vitality and economic development?
Huntsville, Alabama, found itself expanding with new housing and infrastructure, and it also had a series of widely popular arts events. Public art, however, tended to be done in a more ad hoc way. So, in consideration of the urban growth, the city set out to create an arts masterplan that would integrate art with public spaces in a coherent and accessible way, positioning art as a way to enliven the city experience and stimulate economic development.
Known as “Rocket City,” Huntsville is a city in the Tennessee Valley Region of northern Alabama, and the fourth largest city in the state. With a history of river- based textile industries and, more recently, of NASA- related economic activity (the area is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center), the city has long been a reliable generator of jobs. A growing city with abundant educational and cultural offerings, it has been named among The Atlantic’s list of “America’s Leading Creative Class Metros,” and on Kiplinger’s “Top Ten Cities for Raising Families.”
Huntsville has an urban population of 180,000 and a larger metropolitan area population of over 430,000. It
is one of the fastest growing regions of the United States, making planning for future growth and regional livability a high priority on the City’s agenda. Economically, the community hosts a large aerospace and defense sector. Other industrial sectors, including telecommunications and biotech research, are also headquartered in Huntsville due to the region’s valuable concentration of a highly trained and educated workforce. The city is known as a family-friendly place; 26% of Huntsville residents are younger than 20 years old. Taking into account the city’s age demographics and its strong economic activity, city planners understand the city’s population growth, driven by the increasing number of young professionals and “empty nesters," as both an opportunity and a challenge, and are focused on creating better transit connectivity and infrastructure improvements.
Even with all the growth, and with the city’s cultural events growing in popularity, there was never a cohesive approach to the role of public art in the city. Historically, public art had been approached in an ad hoc manner, making it susceptible to the changing agendas of political administrations. The city knew that it needed a more targeted approach to public art to make it an integral part of the city’s initiatives, and to ensure that it was incorporated more carefully into economic development and urban design plans. As Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle says, “cities with strong arts communities are more successful at attracting and retaining professionals.”
In order to achieve a more cohesive approach, Huntsville determined it should assemble a public art masterplan. It turned to The Arts Council (TAC), a nonprofit organization in Huntsville focused on public art, as the lead arts partner to conceive the plan. “At The Arts Council,” says its Executive Director Allison Dillon- Jauken, “we recognize the value that public art can bring to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of the greater Huntsville metropolitan area.” Designed to complement the city’s comprehensive plan, the arts plan would allow the city to methodically consider art in the public domain, and by targeting infrastructure investment zones, including both neighborhoods and the downtown area, it would also help to make new and redesigned places more lively and inviting.
Founded in 1962, TAC has a history of producing arts events throughout Huntsville, including the popular Panoply Arts Festival that began in 1981. For the arts masterplan, it would build on this experience, engaging Huntsville-based artists and art organizations as part of the process. TAC itself represents about 150 arts and cultural organizations, so it had an expansive network of committed constituents already in place. Glenn Dasher, a sculptor, and the Dean of University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Liberal Arts, consulted on the project. TAC also pulled in other outside experts to serve as consultants on the masterplan project. For example, it retained Via Partnership (public arts consultants) and Todd Bressi Urban Design. They also worked with the City of Huntsville Planning Department, which helped them negotiate the complexities of city planning processes.
To launch the project, TAC and its consultants held extensive community meetings and charrettes, engaging with elected officials, neighborhood associations, architects, planners, artists, and residents to assess community needs for public art. They also reviewed both active and older planning documents to better understand what had been tried in the past. To get a sense of areas of relative need, they documented existing public art and did extensive field research to identify potential sites for new public art, including parks, greenways, and public infrastructure. Once they had a draft version of the planning document, they held focus groups to revise the plans. Community engagement was critical to the process, so Via Partnership and Todd Bressi Urban Design managed outreach in collaboration with the TAC staff.
The project saw the completion of an ambitious public art masterplan across the city and developed a methodical approach to public art in Huntsville. In the process, TAC generated a vigorous dialogue about the role of art in the city, engaging sectors of the population that might have otherwise not been concerned with art discourse, including historians, real estate professionals, developers, and neighborhood representatives. The plan outlines key guidelines for embedding public art into the community, including artist selection, project management, and collection maintenance. After the plan is implemented, TAC will assess impact indicators recommended by Americans for the Arts, including quantitative analyses and qualitative surveys, measuring the artistic, social, environmental, and economic value of the plan’s outcomes.
With the attention that the community outreach process brought to the benefits of art in the public domain, unexpected constituencies became committed stakeholders. For example, during a focus group with private developers and real-estate interests, the group encouraged mandates from the City in order to stimulate the inclusion of public art in private development projects. The team originally anticipated that there would be an eventual discussion on mandates – such as a Percent for Art program – but they were both surprised and heartened by the fact that developers, architects, and real estate investors were encouraging additional design guidelines and possible funding requirements for government-sponsored projects.
- City of Huntsville
- The Arts Council
“Going forward, the biggest project challenge will be making sure that the [public art] plan is adopted and followed through subsequent city administrations. The connections that formed throughout the project process are essential for helping the plan sustain momentum in the future.” - Allison Dillon-Jauken, TAC Executive Director
“Provide as much information as possible to project partners to ensure everyone understands the level of financial commitment and staff resources required to successfully implement a public art plan, even at a modest level.” - Allison Dillon-Jauken, TAC Executive Director
“Timing the project in conjunction with changes in the City Planning department has been the most important factor in our project. Though we had to delay the start of the project, collaboration with the City’s new Long Range Planner and his Comprehensive Planning process has ultimately enhanced and legitimized our process.” - Allison Dillon-Jauken, TAC Executive Director