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Jax Daily Record Monday, May. 12, 201412:00 PM EST

Program would turn Downtown from drab to fab; DIA would provide $406,000

by: David Chapman

In the drive for public art Downtown, it’s better to ask for permission than forgiveness.

That’s the lesson art enthusiasts learned in recent months after a string of high-profile tributes painted on public utility boxes ultimately led to the arrest of Chip Southworth, known as “Keith Haring’s Ghost,” in March on felony charges.

There is now a push to make Downtown an area for a pilot program that could see such utility boxes, walls, street furnishings and bike racks transformed into something more — street art that’s legal.

The $406,000 project is being advocated by the Art In Public Places Committee and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. And it now has the vocal support of the Downtown Investment Authority, which would finance the project, after a brief presentation to its board last month. Final approval rests with the City Council.

Utility boxes, “Duval Walls,” graffiti walls bike racks, street furnishings and Skyway stations all could be artists’ canvases in a regulated program.

“It’s not a free for all,” said Christie Holechek, Art in Public Places Program director. “There is a process and a team of experts in place.”

That “free for all” concept is an idea that Holechek, former Cultural Council interim director Kerri Stewart and others have been trying to negate when talking with lawmakers, authority heads and public safety officials. It will need buy-in from them all.

“There has been some concern about opening it up,” Stewart said. “They are worried about no plan, no purpose. That’s why a pilot program is important.”

A key part of the pilot program will be to alter legislation that would allow for such streetscape enhancements.

It’s currently a part of the authority’s Community Redevelopment Area program being put together, but the changes will still be needed.

For instance, as the law is now, utility boxes are off-limits for art program, under city code.

Under the utility box proposal, artists will be asked to paint original designs for city-chosen sites. Those designs will be selected by the Art in Public Places Committee or another group to be determined.

And, artists can receive a $500 stipend after completion of their work, with artists responsible for materials, preparation and clean-up.

“Duval Walls,” or mural walls, are larger-scale in nature and also a part of the authority’s plan.

An early breakdown, according to Holechek, would have 75 percent of the budget provided to the public art and artists, 20 percent for administration and permitting costs, and the remaining 5 percent applied toward long-term maintenance of the works.

And the latest edition of graffiti walls isn’t a part of the authority’s plan, but would call for artists to paint select city walls on weekends with supervision.

It’s thought that by allowing such walls as an outlet, it could deter vandalism on other Downtown structures.

Throughout all the different programs is a uniform set of rules — no hate speech, extreme or gratuitous violence, pornography, drug references, profanity or corporate logos.

Holechek said the Art in Public Places Committee is developing an annual plan and, depending on the authority’s redevelopment plans, a call for artists could be put out in early fall.

First up will likely be utility boxes and Skyway stations.

Jacksonville wouldn’t be a pioneer in the urban art field. Stewart said Portland, Ore., San Francisco, and Atlanta have all had success in their respective areas.

Holechek said the program will work, if done right.

“It all needs to be planned really well,” she said. “If we don’t, it will look hodgepodge.”

And as for the man who recently brought the issue to light, Holechek said Southworth is “extremely interested” in applying for some of the work with the program.

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