Published on: Feb. 22, 2019
See Art for Free in the Hostess City

“See Art for Free in the Hostess City”
by SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace

Savannah, gem of the South Atlantic coast, is lauded and loved the world over for its striking visual beauty, both natural and made by human hands. Grand vistas of ocean and river and marsh, and fairytale oaks whispered with moss, tell a story of time and history and strength, framed and made all the more grand by 18th-century founder James Edward Oglethorpe‘s radically progressive urban plan. What could better define public art than our city’s more than 20 deliriously serene squares?

From Johnson Square (Savannah’s first) to Madison Square (my favorite, for its proximity to a very special building), each of these outdoor living spaces is a gift to every citizen, every guest, as is Savannah’s panoply of early American architecture, including the more than 75 historic buildings rehabilitated and repurposed by SCAD. One might say that the university’s most public art works are the buildings themselves, such as Magnolia Hall and its epic porches — easily the most photographed building around Forsyth Park — or the SCAD Museum of Art, the oldest extant railroad complex in the U.S., repurposed as a world-class teaching museum, open to all.

These university buildings, each a gem in the crown of Savannah’s beloved architecture, enhance everyone’s quality of life, adding texture and story to the cityscape. In her essay “Temporality and Public Art,” scholar Patricia Phillips writes, “Public art is about the idea of the commons — the physical configuration and mental landscape of American public life.” SCAD has been privileged to play a pivotal role in creating this commons in Savannah, as with all our hometown communities around the world. From our university’s historic theaters to public galleries and museums, SCAD embraces Oglethorpe’s original intent to create a city that privileges the common experience of the many over the few, where aspiration and civic pride meet.

Insider tip: The most affordable way to take in the city’s architecture is the SCAD tour (it’s free!), at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, Monday through Saturday. Tours start here, former home of the oldest hospital in Georgia. The best part: You get to see inside the buildings, too.

For a glimpse into one of our biggest celebrations of fine art, visit deFINE ART, February 26-28, now in its tenth year.  The public is welcome to come to the SCAD Museum of Art, the Gutstein Gallery, as well as SCAD Atlanta’s Trois Gallery and SCADshow, to see exhibitions and artist lectures. This year, the legendary Lawrence Weiner, trailblazing conceptual artist renowned for his text-based public art, will be given special honor.

Just as the university shares the beauty of its architecture with the community, so SCAD celebrates memorable works of public art, too. Delight is a cornerstone of the three Vitruvian Principles of classical design, and awe-inspiring creations that contribute to the public good add an unmistakable element of surprise and delight for every pedestrian. Our dreamy town is home to a vast collection of monuments, fountains, and sculptures, from the banks of the Savannah River to Forsyth Park.

The Jewel Boxes of the SCAD Museum of Art offer publicly viewable art presented in four glass envelopes externally facing for passersby on the street — call it “meta-public” art. Presented for deFINE ART, Didyme, by German artist Berta Fischer, features four SCAD-commissioned site-specific installations that transform each of the glass boxes into homes for her light, ethereal sculptures. The SCAD Museum of Art Jewel Boxes, like the famed Barneys windows, are a must-see for any visitor.

Of course, most public art is exhibited entirely out-of-doors, which grants freedom of scale. Eschewing walls, the dimensions of outdoor art are limited only by property size, construction material, and aesthetic balance of the surrounding landscape and architecture.

Consider Jedd Novatt’s Chaos Concepción in the SCAD Museum of Art’s courtyard, which arises to lift the eyes and aspirations of all who contemplate it. The sculpture conquers gravity, expressing the soul unbound in an eternal echo of hope. This towering work visually complements the SCAD Museum of Art’s own tower of light, which speaks to the depot’s history as a harbinger of strength and freedom for all. Novatt’s monoprint series, Chaos Pacific, created in concert with the sculpture, hangs in the second floor SCAD Museum of Art reflection loft.

Equally so, public murals, like the dazzling Montgomery Hall mural designed by SCAD alumnus Matt Hebermehl, often speak to the deeper meaning of a physical space. (In this case, the vibrant image, reminiscent of a joyful classroom doodle, reminds our SCAD digital media students about the importance of drawing in their animations, games, and films.)

In addition to the art and architecture of the city and university, festivals and events offer a kind of public performance art for locals and the city’s more than 14 million annual visitors, many of whom are hosted by SCAD. Every year during the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, the whole of Broughton Street becomes a living work of art, from the opening night street party, to the red carpet appearances in front of Trustees Theater, to the students excitedly pitching their TV show and screenplay ideas to the thousands of filmmakers who descend on the city.

Our Sidewalk Arts Festival is easily the community’s largest (and most ephemeral) public art project. Thousands flock to view the rainbow of color that transforms 800 concrete squares in Forsyth Park every year. For a flickering moment, the chalk paintings of the Sidewalk Arts Festival shine. Then, nature reclaims them, usually with a healthy spring rain. Impermanent as the art may be, the festival makes an indelible imprint on visitors and artists — especially our students.

Savannah is, at heart, a city where visual splendor is democratic and accessible. SCAD has worked for four decades to nurture that goodness. With works of art and architecture, as well as with memorable events, the university invites the entire community to experience and enjoy public art, including works made right here in Savannah. Oglethorpe’s inclusive, progressive vision lives on. Just look around, and soak it in.

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