Will Congress Avenue become the creative core of Austin? Some art and business leaders think so, and they're trying to make it happen.
The City of Austin is one of the 105 finalists for a Creative Placemaking Grant from Art Place, a company that invests in art and culture by awarding grants to different organizations and communities. For KUT News, Cathy Byrd meets Meredith Powell, of Art Alliance Austin, and Melissa Barry, with Downtown Austin Alliance, to talk about their Congress Avenue Creativity Project.
KUT: You teamed up to apply for a highly prized ArtPlace Grant. What is an ArtPlace Grant, Melissa?
Melissa Barry: ArtPlace is trying something really interesting. They’re asking communities—they’re challenging communities—to think about how artists contribute to economic development, and that’s different from the way we’ve done economic development in the past.
ArtPlace has behind it funding from some of the nation’s largest foundations, such as the Ford Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. They are awarding grants through several different programs to allow communities to implement creative placemaking projects.
KUT: What does “creative placemaking” mean?
Barry: It’s hard to define, but it’s about putting artists at the forefront of their communities and about having artists engage with their communities to create place.
KUT: Meredith, I know you’re a finalist and the awards will be announced in May, but I understand that you’re not waiting for the funding to test your ideas. What do you have planned for April?
Meredith Powell: Art Alliance is committed to advancing the City through the integration of culture and creativity into public life. So, regardless of ArtPlace funding, while it would definitely take our initiatives to the next level, and allow us to bring in talent we wouldn’t otherwise be able to bring from a funding perspective, we’re working in April on the 900 block, which is a beautiful and amazing block, once you start to peel back the layers and understand the history of the block and the dynamics of the block. One of the projects that we’re working on is an alley regeneration project, an activation project that is looking at the alley on 9th Street between Congress and Brazos, and starting to activate that space.
As we’re facing the most rapid urbanization in human history, it becomes even more critical that we understand what the public spaces, particularly in our downtown, mean to us as a community. That activation project is with a bunch of partners and the DAA is one of them, to test the uses of the space, to test the property owners’ will and desire to activate the space. We’ve commissioned an architect—his name is Dan Cheatham—to create an installation within the space, so adding an element with the artist’s perspective. Also, we’ll be programming in the space from April 17th through 21st to see what the space is like with people in it and to have it programmed. So we start to understand the avenue is really critical. The front of the avenue is really critical, but there are other spaces adjacent to the Avenue, that actually serve a purpose. Allowing us to put services there, allows us to have a beautiful street front. So, starting to understand that relationship between public spaces and the roles they serve in creating great places, is part of the alley activation project.
We’ll also be in a temporary storefront, at 912 Congress, which, for us, is a really exciting opportunity to test the idea of what it means to have a space dedicated to critical and creative thinking about the Avenue. So really creating a conduit for creatives of all kinds to think about, to work within a space and be thinking about Congress Avenue and that everybody does have a place there.
KUT: How does this fit into the Downtown Austin Alliance vision?
Barry: The focus of this project is from Lady Bird Lake to the Capitol. In 2009, when we revised our strategic plan, we reaffirmed Congress Avenue as a priority. And, in 2010, we developed a community-wide workshop, where we took a hundred or more participants out along Congress Avenue. We walked block by block, and we talked about the Avenue and what some of the challenges and some of the opportunities were. This project is really taking the vision and bringing it a little bit further.
Powell: We think that having artists at the forefront of the regeneration of the Avenue, and ultimately, the development of the Avenue—with its eye on creating amazing place— would be a dialogue that can change the face of our downtown, starting with Congress Avenue.