Keeping It Local! Jacksonville Arts Initiative

Jacksonville Arts Initiative meeting at The Union Art Studios & Gallery, Photo by Matthew S. Bennett

Commentary by local artist Sherry J. Hill

Imagine local artists having a liaison to the Mayor’s Office. Imagine art being used to fight blight and crime. Imagine local artists working and being paid well for their time and creativity. Imagine our city being a whole lot more beautiful. This is a dream that many local artists ponder while working “regular” jobs to pay bills. We have evolved to understand that art is an important component to creating a city with a real pulse. Many local artists are proud to point out that the best examples of our recent cultural progress, especially in our Downtown revitalization efforts, have all been carried on the backs and wallets of local creatives. Art Walk, Riverside Arts Market, and One Spark are a few names that get mentioned. The case has been well made for the value and sense of place that public art brings to a city. The positive economic impact from our Cultural Council’s expenditure to support nonprofits and cultural institutions of just under 2.4 million, or .24% of the total city budget, is over 77 million dollars. Under the direction of Tony Allegretti, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville has stepped up in recent years to move Jacksonville on par with other cities when it comes to displaying public art. But now that new funding has been made available, local artists feel locked out of many of the high paying opportunities.

Local artist Chip Southworth has been especially active and has even taken drastic measures to move public, street-style art forward. He was arrested for embellishing utility boxes with art. Yes, arrested for vandalism. Search the internet for this full story. It’s pretty crazy that he did not have a workable connection to COJ government to try to bring this project to Jacksonville. Other cities welcome people with this type of passion. After the struggle was said and done, Jacksonville became a city like many others and added a project that included the adornment of utility boxes to their public arts projects. A win for local artists, you might think. And this is where it gets sticky, and people got mad. And I mean really mad.

Chip Southworth

Jacksonville Arts Initiative’s name came from a project started by Gray Solomon, the Curator of the Gallery held in the former Haydon Burns Library during the early days of Art Walk many years prior to its renovation. Its recent reincarnation was fueled by a call-to-artists for the Downtown Investment Authority’s Urban Arts Project. Art Downtown sounds great right? When the call shut the majority of local artists out of hundreds of thousands of dollars that were being spent by our city for new art, local artists mobilized and made their voices known. For those outside of the art world, a call is basically a request for artists to show qualifications and submit their interest in hopes of winning an opportunity to be paid to create something awesome.

Led by the critical voice of Chip Southworth, who actually created the awareness and helped craft the call after his activism was recognized,Tammy McKinley the curator of the Union Galleries stepped up with a location to hold a meeting. Myself (Sherry J Hill, a local emerging sculptor), Jim Smith, a pillar of the arts community, along with a diverse group of artists were quick to assemble and begin gathering ideas to create a united front. When asked what made Jim Smith get involved in the Jax Arts Initiative his response was “I felt that local artists were underserved here in town.” Jim Smith is one of the lucky few that makes a living using his talent by teaching art and by working on commissioned projects such as the new mural at the downtown library. When I asked what he hopes the Jacksonville Arts Initiative will accomplish, he said he hopes “inroads to public art can be made. Right now there are a lot of hurdles for less-funded local artists to be shown. The goal is to have artists making a living from selling their art.”

Tammy McKinley when asked why she got involved stated: “I offered The Union Art Studios and Gallery to host the first JAI meeting because we needed enough room to host over 100 local artists that expressed interest in having a voice in the Art in Public Places call for artists and [to] discuss other ways we can find positive solutions to grow Jacksonville’s art community.”

The issue that no one wants to touch is that local artists are at a disadvantage because they face prejudice. They have also had fewer opportunities to create large-scale works. Good art is expensive. To be successful you have to already be successful. Opportunities to show publicly have just started to emerge for Jacksonville artists.

“National art is fine as long as 15 to 20% is local… There hasn’t been but one truly local project in four years. That’s unacceptable!”

When asked about national versus local art Southworth says, “Well, there are huge concentrations of great and successful artists in NYC and So Cal; national art is fine as long as 15 to 20% is local… There hasn’t been but one truly local project in four years. That’s unacceptable!” The current Art in Public Places program is supposed to allow 15% for local art. An artist that didn’t want to give their name said, “When you have so few projects, 15% of one statue or one mural doesn’t make sense.” The artists weren’t saying all art should be local; they were saying there needs to balance. They just want a fair shot at these huge opportunities.

Jacksonville Arts Initiative, Photo by Tammy McKinley
Photo by Tammy McKinley

I watched as both sides struggled. The Cultural Council felt attacked, and, truthfully, they did get knocked about pretty roughly. I felt bad because it was obvious that they fought hard to get funding for art, but they were restricted. Then there were the local artists that felt locked out and betrayed. And this is where the hole in our system became so blatantly obvious, and the opportunity to do something really impactful screamed from the fury. This is what made me get involved. It was clear that the problem is within the system. We need a Community Arts Budget for this type of project. Our current structure within the Art in Public Places umbrella does not accommodate standards for small, medium, transient, and organic projects that local artists in other cities enjoy to help them strengthen their communities and build portfolios. Other cities have flexibility to embrace projects like these. Our City’s Expected Qualifications read more like the requirements for a 50’-tall, bronze statue: insurance and equipment and permits and advanced renderings and expensive printing through preselected sources and more insurance! These utility boxes that caused all of this trouble could have happily been painted with a brush and then painted again next year and so on. However, with the Permanent Collection Standards most of our artists were stopped before they even got to show any potential. The creativity is here. The funding needed to showcase that potential has not been.

“The combined economic power of all our local artists necessitates being able to work closely with City leaders to enhance and improve the Jacksonville identity.”

A budget to engage local artists and help our emerging artists build stronger portfolios, so they can actually compete based on talent, makes a whole lot of sense. A blanket event-liability policy to lift the burden of insurance, expedited permitting, and a liaison directly to the Mayor’s Office to help create this positive connection could make art a lot more productive, especially for city-wide events. Could this project have fallen under the very progressive Spark Grant outreach? It’s a tricky dance… Spark Grants have hoops and hurdles for applicants that can be barriers for individual artists, especially those less versed in the art of paperwork. And there are funding restrictions; as I understand it, DIA funding is City funding. Spark Grants, which have been very helpful to seed amazing progress and show the value of local projects, are for private funding. Direct funding of art projects currently can only be done under guidelines for the Permanent Public Arts Budget. Street-style, semi-permanent, local-only projects funded through the City don’t have a place yet. The only guidelines the Cultural Council had to use were the Art in Public Places ones, so the result was a bunch of furious artists who had no chance to meet the stringent requirements for qualifications and our Cultural Council being criticized for fighting for money for art by the people they were trying to help.

There are many projects that could be realized with this type of intuitive outreach. Obviously painting of utility boxes should fall under the new community arts program. A rotating mural is another. Artists could paint a mural and receive $1,000 with a stipend for supplies. We would get a new piece of art every month; artists would get legal photographs of intermediary works. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. Let’s face it–no one wants to commit to a mural or mosaic of a new artist permanently until they prove themselves. To prove themselves they must paint a big mural! Painting a big mural or making a mosaic is expensive and time-consuming, and without permission it’s against the law. Sculpture is even more tricky, often requiring permits, special insurance, and equipment for transportation. So what is the answer? Mayor Curry has appointed a Director of Strategic Partnerships to help create stronger ties to the nonprofit sector. This is an encouraging move. Under this new position, a Director for Community Arts could easily be situated, and a new position within the Cultural Council under the Art in Public Places with a budget similar to the Urban Arts Project could be funded annually. Our city and our neighborhoods would move hyper light years forward with this addition. Art that engages the community in its creation can change neighborhoods. We have a real opportunity to reseed our priorities as a sophisticated city that respects the value of creativity.

“Every major city in the world has a thriving arts community that the local government to some degree supports and encourages. It’s time Jacksonville takes it to the next level. Art and culture will do that for a city. And local artists are in the unique position to make that possible. Give us an inch, and we will give you a mile.”

Those who have joined the Jacksonville Arts Initiative all have very different voices.  The thing we all agree on is that public art is great, but local artists are a treasure within our communities, and they deserve more support.

Many artists are leery of government funds and the control of expression that brings. Southworth and many artists believe that our public art will be mostly privately funded. Southworth states: “We need local art especially in our neighborhoods, and less bureaucracy.” We can all agree on that! I believe we need both private and public funding. The City should have a hand in what is presented in public space, and they should invest in the positivity that art develops. In my opinion, the private sector should also have freedoms to help shape our city’s image. The other component is the business side of this equation. Public art is big money! Over a million dollars is being spent on new art this year alone through the Percentage for Art program. (Go to  for details.) So, why wouldn’t we as a city want to cultivate people who can bring millions of dollars back into the economy? We should offer support to other industry sectors that can bring jobs and make sustained positive impacts to our economy. The Cultural Council already engages in development activities to help artists be better business people through seminars and education. The Community Arts Budget would allow them to invest in an even deeper, more meaningful way.

As Tammy McKinley so eloquently states: “Since then (our first meeting), JAI has grown to almost 700 members. The combined economic power of all our local artists necessitates being able to work closely with City leaders to enhance and improve the Jacksonville identity. That’s why having a Community Arts Budget, and hopefully a Community Art Advocate that will facilitate a dialogue between local artists and City government is so important. Every major city in the world has a thriving arts community that the local government to some degree supports and encourages. It’s time Jacksonville takes it to the next level. Art and culture will do that for a city. And local artists are in the unique position to make that possible. Give us an inch, and we will give you a mile.”

Join the Jacksonville Arts Initiative group on Facebook to be a part of the progress.

Oct 19 UPDATE from the Culture Council of Greater Jacksonville:

The statement was made that only one local piece has been added to the public art collection over the past four years.

The city’s official Art in Public Places (APP) collection consists of 45% local art, much higher than the mandated 15%. Local art added to the collection since 2012 includes:

  • “Mirrored River” by Roux Arts (2015)
  • “Girl and Origami” by Sean Mahan (2013)
  • Jacksonville Public Library Main Branch – Photography Collection (2012) consists of pieces from 15 photographers, 7 of which are local
  • APP partnered with DVI on the Shaun Thurston mural above Chamblins (2014)
  • Photojax500 – APP partnered with Missy Hager and Jensen Hande to solicit 500 photographs taken by community members in Duval county (2013)

Pieces by local artists will also be added to the collection in 2017.  Those pieces include:

  • Bike racks fabricated by Lance Vickery (scheduled to be installed at seven downtown locations)
  • Two street furnishings by Jenny Hager (scheduled to be installed at two downtown locations)



  1. That number is part of a direct quote. I think it’s a matter of sentiment. Thank you for clarifying. I think we can all agree that more can and should be done.

  2. The Cultural Council is stating the 45% of the public art is by local artists yet the really expensive, big projects are dominated by artists from out of state. Its unfair to compare the huge horse sculpture at the Equestrian Center to a bicycle rack.

  3. “Mirrored River” (2015) is perhaps one of the most iconic pieces in the City’s official collection. That was created by Roux Arts, who is local to Jacksonville. “Mirrored River” was also one of the last large pieces added to the collection.

    “Girl and Origami” (2013) is also another large piece in the City’s official collection that was done by a local artist, Sean Mahan. That piece is on the Yates Parking Garage and is five stories tall.

    The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville posts a Call to Artists for ALL city funded public art projects. Local artists are always encouraged to apply.

    Additionally, the Cultural Council does not select what artists projects are awarded to. APP has an Art in Public Places Committee and an Art Selection Panel. These committees and panels are the ones who review applicants and their submitted bodies of work. It should be stated that some of these committee members and panelists are local artists themselves.