Painting the Town Pretty
Baton Rouge Walls Project wants to give the downtown area a facelift
By Jessi StaffordPosted Apr 4, 2012
Everything about the crowd gathered inside downtown’s Buzz Café last week oozed with creativity. When area residents and press were invited to attend a special announcement, the expectation was a formal question-and-answer session followed by arranged meet-and-greets. What followed was just the opposite.
So, what exactly has Baton Rouge so excited? A new collaborative project, dubbed the Baton Rouge Walls Project, founded by (but not limited to) co-curators Casey Phillips and Kathryn Thorpe, seeks to revitalize Baton Rouge’s downtown area with large-scale paintings, sculptures, and art installations.
The project has been gaining traction via its campaign for funding on the popular entrepreneurial website Kickstarter.com, which helps artists, visioneers, and nonprofits “kick start” their innovative ideas.
Last week, when Phillips and Thorpe announced Lamar Advertising Company’s involvement with the Walls Project, patrons were warmly invited to sit and chat with the project’s many collaborators to look at black and white photos of potential downtown spaces. They were also offered a sneak peek at the newly renovated website and sipped coffee while the project’s founders doled out hugs and thank-yous. Even the interview setting was a collaborative effort, with members sitting round-table style and popcorning responses off of each other.
Sculpting the idea
The inspiration for the Walls Project similarly came to Phillips while he and a group of friends were walking around after an event. “It’s really drab downtown,” Phillips thought. So why not spice it up? Now, Phillips and the project’s ever-expanding group of supporters believe that beautifying downtown with art will have far-reaching positive effects for the entire community.
“I’ve been commuting back and forth to Los Angeles for over five years,” said Phillips. “There is a huge drop in stimulation creatively between the two cities.” He said the project is not about emulating what other places are doing, but is instead about taking the best parts of American culture and putting a unique spin on them.
“There are really cool things starting to pop,” said Phillips of Baton Rouge’s art scene. “There are people downtown who have been driving this cause for a decade-plus. We are here to put an accent on the things they’re doing.” The expectation is to inspire local creatives and like-minded individuals to jump back into their craft, and hopefully get paid for it, by turning Baton Rouge into a supportive, artistic environment.
The Walls Project will essentially undergo two phases. During the first phase, selected artists will paint murals over the blasé grey downtown walls, transforming them into life-size works of art that are visible to residents and visitors when they first enter the city. This phase will start in the Arts District (along Fourth St.) before exploding into the rest of downtown.
With downtown walls as the project’s starting canvas, the second phase of the alfresco art gallery is Lamar’s partnership, adding mobile art installations to accompany the murals. According to the official release, Lamar will “print artwork on large, vinyl banners that fasten to buildings creating an outdoor gallery setting.” This portion of the project will be open to all visual artists, from graphic designers to photographers. Banksy would be proud.
But the project hopes to do more than just paint a pretty (life-sized) picture. “Part of our intention with this [project] is because of these people [seated around the table in the interview room] who are dissatisfied with the level of apathy and how things have always been,” Phillips said. “It appeals to people not only artistically, but on a social level. Downtown is the common union between all the different races and all the different economic levels within the city.”
Phillips hopes it will encourage more events downtown and bring more people on a daily basis that think of the area as a destination, not just as a means to get somewhere else. “Having a thriving downtown business is the heart of a city,” he said. “You don’t have to live here and you don’t have to do business here to understand that it’s important to have a thriving downtown. So we’re doing our part.”
Manuel Valencia, founder of the arts and events series 300 Seats, thinks this project can help change perceptions of Baton Rouge as simply a financially and politically-driven area. “I feel that Baton Rouge has an interesting dilemma,” said Valencia, who moved here two years ago from New York. “There are very talented people here, but it is also the State Capital. A lot of times, people think about Baton Rouge as only politics, law, and finance. One of the most important things the Walls Project will do is create different memories for people and different triggers for how they think of the city.”
This, in turn, could inspire a new rush of tourism, working in conjunction with other downtown developmental projects like improved bike lanes to make the city active. “People will remember [Baton Rouge] and they may even encourage other people to come and see it,” said Valencia. “It’s important to be an aspirational and motivating source for the artists that are here, something visible that provides inspiration for what they do.”
Phillips agrees that improving alliances between residents through an artistic project will foster an economy that places importance on a creative workforce. “We are all art lovers – creatives,” said Phillips. “We all recognize that commerce creates art, and art creates commerce. If you want an artistic, creative community you have to figure out a way for them to be able to pay the bills.”
Valencia said the project will also broaden the group of artists who get to play. “As an outsider, I can say there is a very strong sense of community here,” said Valencia, who lived in New York City during and after 9/11. “You appreciate a very tight community, even to a fault. There are pockets of cliquishness in the city where if you’re not a part of the club, you’re not allowed to play. A project like this will help create different clubs or open up the clubs.”
Sean Simone, managing partner at BluReach, the company tasked with the Walls Project’s social media and marketing, is proving that the project’s promotional tactics are just as grassroots as the project itself. “We are definitely taking advantage of free platforms, since this is a brand new nonprofit with almost no budget,” said Simone. “We are all donating our effort and time. The Kickstarter video is the main content piece we’re using because it really captures what we’re trying to do in one succinct message.” The video is then being distributed via social networking platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, to further amplify the project’s collaborative nature much more effectively.
Crowdsourcing for a better Baton Rouge is also coming into play. “We’re asking people to get involved on Facebook and Twitter by telling us what other cities inspire them,” Simone said. By finding out which aspects of other cities area residents find inspiring, Simone thinks they can “try to capture that and bring it here.”
Additionally, Baton Rouge residents who feel relegated to the city would be able to experience a bit of inspiration just by coming downtown. “A lot of people in Baton Rouge are landlocked,” said Simone. “By that I mean, you’ll talk to some people that have never even traveled to Florida, never been to the beach. For them, going downtown is the coolest thing they get to do for years. For them to come downtown and see wonderful murals and sculptures or whatever kind of art we decide to do, for them that is a vacation. It opens their mind to other worlds and other creative things they can do.”
Scope of the palette
At the time of the interview, the Walls Project was 29 days away from their funding deadline on Kickstarter, having raised about 20 percent of their goal. When asked what would happen if the goal was not reached, the answer was a resounding “that won’t happen.” Simone said every member of the project is too invested to see it fail, so everyone will push to see it become a reality, much like the “never give up” spirit of Louisiana itself.
Many members agreed that a major strength of the project is the prevalence of opportunity in Baton Rouge. “The fact that we are so far behind other cities we’re looking to compete with: Austin, Kansas City, Louisville,” said Simone, “just that fact alone means there’s an opportunity for us to shoot past them and excel. We can use that as a strength.”
Rob Wise, chief operating officer at Mayer IT, the company in charge of redesigning the project’s website, sees Baton Rouge as inherently motivated to help the project succeed. “Our people will be the driving force behind this, with the skills, creativity, and ingenuity that we all possess,” Mayer said. “It is, for lack of a better term, the bigger picture that I think we can all paint together. As a community, I just feel like [Baton Rouge Walls Project] is going to bring us together.”
Questions or comments? Send an email to Editor@DigBatonRouge.com.