As news of Robin Williams’ death circulated through the crowd of more than 50 members of the local arts community gathered at the old Chamber Building in the middle of Broad Street on Monday, August 11, the message never seemed to waver: Augusta artists need to work together if they’re going to turn Augusta into the progressive, art-loving community it deserves to be, and above all else, they’d better remain positive
Hardly an original message, it was actually a little disappointing to hear for those who had come expecting a rumble. After all, the unwritten reason for the meeting was the belief by some that the arts community isn’t currently receiving the support it should be from the Greater Augusta Arts Council, the umbrella organization for the arts in Augusta.
The organizer of this so-called summit, local artist and advertising art director Ron Turner, stated flat-out that the reason for the meeting was his perception that there was a “lack of involvement in the arts.”
So, given the fact that many in attendance felt the meeting wouldn’t have been necessary if the Arts Council was doing its job, you had to give Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant credit for showing up. Artists aren’t always known for their tact and restraint, and the whole thing could have very easily turned into a pick on Brenda summit.
Durant, of course, is a divisive figure among local artists. While some value the structure the Arts Council gives to what can seem like a vicious, almost cannibalistic tribe of individuals and organizations, others see Durant as a kind of iron-fisted ruler.
To quote one artist, “It’s not like Brenda’s going around knocking paint brushes out of artists’ hands,” but there is nevertheless a strong undercurrent among artists that as a gatekeeper, Durant is more about keeping the gate closed than keeping it open.
It’s a view that comes to a head every Arts in the Heart, where Durant has been cast a villain for trying to keep pop-up groups like Artzilla from forming outside the gates she’s so busy overseeing.
Some of the artists feel Durant’s position is nothing more than hostile aggression toward the people she should be supporting, though it certainly makes sense for her to keep a wary eye on what’s happening outside the official boundaries of the festival. If an unauthorized festival should break out outside the gates, it could have a negative effect on the festival itself. After all, Arts in the Heart charges vendors to be inside the gates just as it charges festival goers for the privilege of mingling with them.
Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re not paying for a booth, that flattery loses a little of its charm.
But art-types love to argue, and combining highbrow idealism with the lowdown realities of commerce is guaranteed to ignite passions, which is why the summit was ultimately disappointing in its banality.
In an open mic phase that was mostly unashamed self promotion wrapped up in a blanket of community-building, individual artists and business owners introduced themselves and their skills, then talked a little about how they’d love for their individual dreams to be woven into the tapestry of the Augusta art scene.
Big dreams with sketchy execution.
A prime example would be David Parker, editor-in-chief of the city rag called, quite fittingly, the City Rag.
“I created [the paper] and said, ‘I can afford this for two months.’ Well, we’re over four months now, so it’s going pretty good.”
Not to be negative, but turning a dream into a reality takes more than good intentions, as the people at Athens’ Flagpole, the paper he aspires to be, well know. Grassroots moxie is one thing, but scavenging other publications’ boxes – outright theft in the case of his repurposed Spirit box – is quite another.
By that time, however, everyone was so busy being positive that it might as well have been a group therapy session.
The only real fireworks occurred when Book Tavern owner David Hutchison, that tall pillar of downtown gravitas, poked back at the negativity of the Metro Spirit, which published Scott Hudson’s email from Bonnie Ruben imploring the self-styled investigative reporter to dig up some stuff on Hutchison and the Soul Bar’s Coco Rubio.
“Many of you may know that there were some negative things in the Metro Spirit about me, and of course people came up and asked me about this thing that I read about,” he said. “Well, I was like, ‘I can’t believe so-and-so would say something like that.’ But that got old after about a day. When people started asking about this letter in the Metro Spirit, I’d say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the new First Friday.’”
The place erupted with applause every bit as snarky as the Insider can be, but Hutchison remained so earnest and virtuous that he might as well have been channeling the spirit of his brother-in-law Matt Plocha, who made himself the impoverished darling of the downtown scene with his “community” mantra, first with Verge, then for three months as the publisher of the Metro Spirit, and then again with Verge – as an owner at first and then as an employee – before eventually leaving town.
Hutchison’s barb got a rise out of the crowd far greater than anything that Durant said when she chose to speak, probably because Durant had nothing but positives of her own to deliver. Positives that had some substance to them.
Not only did she talk about utilizing a Georgia Council for the Arts grant to hang art in the old Chamber Building, she also talked about getting money to put on artist workshops. Further neutralizing any possible dissent, she even told everyone the workshop topics are going to be determined by an artist survey created with the input of Dr. Tony Robinson, whose coolness credentials as one of the founders of Augusta’s Hackathon are impeccable.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to the bottom line artists in attendance, was the announcement that the city of Augusta had agreed to spend some money to decorate the traffic boxes that occupy the sidewalks – 15 throughout the city, including seven downtown.
The traffic boxes will not only beautify the area, she said, but also serve as a kind of advertising for the arts, which might help convince voters to vote for the next list of SPLOST projects.
The artists, however, took away something entirely different about the idea.
“This is a project – I know you’re going to hate this – where the artist gets paid for the work,” she said to a resounding applause.
Game, set and match to Durant.