State of the Art Savannah
There are about 143,000 people currently living in Savannah, Georgia. Approximately 143,000 of them are artists.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration – but it’s one that captures the feel of this city, where you can barely walk across a downtown square without running into at least one artist.
Obviously, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is largely to thank for this; it is a beacon to young, aspiring artists across the world to whom it promises illustrious and lucrative careers in the arts. But while SCAD is a competitive, difficult environment whose motto really ought to be changed to “sink or swim,” the city itself has become the true cradle from which artists get the nurturing they need.
In the last few years we’ve seen a huge surge in artist-created, artist-led creative spaces like the Starland neighborhood’s Sulfur Studios and downtown’s Jelinek Creative Spaces. Offering both studio and gallery space, these collectives have become leaders in a growing local initiative to put artists in a position of autonomy within the city’s creative economy.
Five years ago, an artist looking for studio space had less than half the options they do now. Not only are there more spaces in which artists can work (Sulfur Studios plans to add 8 more studio spaces to their facility in the next year and yet another studio rental space is set to open off of Waters Avenue in the next year) – they’re spaces focused on community and encouraging collaboration.
Artist-led nonprofits like Art Rise Savannah (of which I am a founding member and a program manager), Loop it Up Savannah and Emergent Savannah have all risen up in the last few years to support and encourage the efforts of artists and community leaders city-wide, but especially in the burgeoning Bull Street corridor, home to the Starland neighborhood.
Starland has become fertile ground for Savannah’s art community – thanks largely to its lower rent prices – but that change is a recent one. (The historic downtown area is also historically too expensive for the young artist steeped in student debt.)
Four years ago, Starland was mainly known for its high crime rates and for being home to Savannah’s overflowing Homeless Authority. Today it hosts Art Rise’s monthly First Friday Art March, a free monthly event that brings people from all over the city directly into the Starland area, gradually helping to turn the neighborhood into a viable space for artists by stimulating the existing area businesses. The Art March connects local galleries and locally-owned restaurants and businesses with placemaking art activities like the monthly Starland Arts Festival, a showcase for art vendors, artisans, musicians, performers and more. April 2016 will be our 50th Art March.
The collaborative spirit that seems to be infusing so much of Savannah’s art scene has extended its tendrils out of the Starland district: 2015 debuted the Second Saturday Savannah Art Walk, a sort of downtown-based Art March created by Tiffani Taylor of Tiffani Taylor Gallery, and the Savannah Bazaar, a monthly showcase of art vendors hosted at downtown’s Jelinek Creative Spaces.
The Art Walk shows off downtown’s gallery diversity, featuring everything from the newbie folk art-focused Roots Up Gallery (which just opened in May of 2014) to the contemporary-focused Galerie 124 to the commercially-bent studios and galleries of City Market, a popular tourist destination.
But as great as downtown is, Starland is really where things are happening.
With recent additions like Lee O’Neil Gallery (which opened in September of 2015) and the Welmont gallery/venue (a newly revamped industrial space on the edges of Starland) to a landscape which already included Non-Fiction Gallery, a fixture of Savannah’s contemporary art scene, and Sulfur Studios, affordable exhibition spaces are in no short supply. And that’s without even mentioning the incredible DIY venues which have, in the last year, opened their doors to musicians and artists of all types.
Picking up the thread of The Erasery, a Starland DIY venue known for hosting curated musical showcases in an intimate living room setting, spaces like QuoLab (a “queer safe(r) DIY space”) and the Bomb Shelter offer a platform for the weird, the loud and the new. The Bomb Shelter even spun off to become a nonprofit record label late last year, representing acts like Culture Vulture and Generation Pill.
Recent showings like Francesca Killian’s nascent illustration exhibition at the Bomb Shelter and QuoLab’s tireless dedication to the performing arts and social activism (they’re known for hosting voter registration events as well as music and performance art by queer and gender non-conforming artists) are proof positive that inclusive, intimate spaces in which young artists can experiment exist in Savannah.
Of course, the fight for inclusivity even in a welcoming art community like Savannah’s is one to pay attention to. The Walls of Hope project, a grassroots mural initiative led by local folk artist Panhandle Slim, began in late 2015 when the artist’s paintings of inspirational quotes from black musicians, political leaders, authors and artists began appearing on the facades of Starland, Midtown, and West Savannah buildings. Walls of Hope tries to effect cultural change by empowering the poor, disenfranchised people living in those neighborhoods through messages of strength, positivity and affirmation.
Overall, the best thing Savannah’s art community has going for it is its sense of growth through collaboration.
Together we’ve been able to create a place where “artist” and “community leader” aren’t necessarily separate job titles, where those people have started to gain positions in city government, municipal committees and neighborhood alliances. Belief in the value of our own creative economy has become self-affirming as the growth of the Starland neighborhood becomes living testimony to the power of art and artist-led initiatives to revitalize a space. As the city builds its multi-million dollar new cultural affairs center, artists associated with the Starland revitalization are being tapped for advice and input, their voices having a tangible impact on the future of art in our city.
Five years ago, Savannah was still a place where young artists went to be inspired, to go to school, to get their feet wet before moving on to the city that would nurture them, let them feed themselves on their own creativity. Most of those people left to find that place, but some of them stayed to help Savannah become that place.
2015 brought us closer than ever to that goal – it’s real, it’s in the air, it’s going to happen because we want it, we’re here and we’ve proven that we’re willing to fight for change. I don’t see any signs of surrender.