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Public Art Helps Cities Be Memorable, Vibrant Places

June 5, 2015  |  Denise Brinson, Assistant City Manager, Economic & Community Development, City of Suwanee
This was originally published in the June 2015 edition of Georgia's Cities.

Denise Brinson
Want to be interesting and memorable? In the summer of 2007, my  family took a trip out West. We flew into Denver, drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota, visited relatives in Montana and trekked through Yellowstone National Park. My children, ages 6 and 10 at the time, when later asked what they liked best about the trip, talked about the “big rock” in downtown Boulder, the “cowboy statue” in front of a government building in Helena, and the “four arches made of deer antlers” that lead into the square in Jackson Hole. For me, this personal example cements the power of public art. Of all the things that they could have recalled from those fabulous landmark locations, it was the public art that made the most significant impression on my children.
I could use flowery language to convince you why public art is important. I could tell you that when I google “public art” things like “it adds cultural, social and economic value,” “it is a distinguishing part of our history and evolving culture,” and “it humanizes the built environment and invigorates public spaces” pop up. But what I’m really saying is that art is important and people (my kids included) just dig it—whether they consciously realize it or not.
Dancer XX by Jack Howard-Potter is part of Suwanee’s SculpTour, a walkable outdoor exhibit  of more than 25 temporary and permanent art pieces displayed throughout downtown Suwanee.

Art and activity are important elements of “place.” Mayor and lifetime Suwanee resident Jimmy Burnette will be the first to tell you that for the 50 years prior to the creation of Town Center, Suwanee was best known for two things: being home to the Atlanta Falcons and speed traps. It wasn’t until we had an interesting “place,” which included interesting “things,” that we started to be recognized by national publications as a great place to live. This, I believe, is no coincidence.
I also believe that public art is now taking Suwanee—and our “place” —to the next level. Public art has become an important piece of what we do, who we are and how we are viewed by residents and visitors, and, increasingly, by the business community. Public art programs like Suwanee SculpTour, a walkable outdoor exhibit of more than 25 temporary and permanent art pieces displayed throughout our downtown, are putting the city on the map.
It’s not enough to simply create a “place.” You also need to make that place come alive...through art, events, activities, and just making things fun. You need to give people a reason to keep coming back and connecting. This bonds a community and feeds cash registers.
Arts  and  culture  elevate  broad  areas. Of course, Suwanee isn’t the only city creating interesting experiences. In Gwinnett County, you can watch world-class stage shows at the Aurora Theater in Lawrenceville, listen to up-and-coming musicians at “Jazz in the Alley” in Norcross, or visit a funky artist colony at Tannery Row in Buford. This list goes on and on. These places, whether intentionally or organically, have found that the arts make them more interesting and engaging. In most cases, it’s not by accident that they are focusing on the arts—they have figured out that the arts add real value to their communities.
I was asked recently, since there are so many cities in Gwinnett, whether or not there is a sense of competition. My answer was “Heck yea! But in a totally positive way.” I believe we constantly push each other to be better. We ultimately want to make our own cities better, which in turn, makes Gwinnett better. With nearly a million people in the county, there is room for everyone to be successful. The fact that our 15 sister cities are all doing interesting things is elevating all of Gwinnett.
Great  places  have  great  art. Art can establish a community’s identity. Can you image New Orleans without jazz? Chicago without the “Bean?” Or Paris without just about everything that makes it so great? These places—and so many more—are inextricably linked to their arts. As in Jackson Hole, it is impossible to separate these great cities from their art. Suwanee too has decided to strive to be a great place. Public art, in the public realm and for the whole of the community, is an integral piece of our overall strategy.  My personal goal for Suwanee is to find our “big rock.”
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