The Art of Downtown and Beyond

Originally Published at the Chancellor's Blog 

Back in the day, the southeast corner of Franklin and Columbia streets was occupied by a gas, Nabs and beverage vendor known as the Happy Store. But that corner, at street level, hasn’t been a happy one for many years following the closure of the bank branch that used to occupy it.

That’s why I’m glad the vacancy has finally been filled with the opening of the new Ackland Museum Store on May 5. The store also features a dedicated exhibition space for artists. The premier exhibit, “Nothing Is Impossible,” features paintings, furniture, book art, sculpture and other works by seven North Carolina artists who have a connection to Penland School of Crafts, located in Mitchell County.

The creation of this combination museum store and art gallery has been a welcome development for everyone involved. The University’s wonderful art museum finally has a place where its visitors can take artwork and art-inspired souvenirs home with them (with the proceeds going to support the Ackland’s exhibition and education programs). Downtown Chapel Hill now has a retail outlet and gallery occupying one of the most recognizable corners in the state. Local artists have another venue where their art can be seen and sold. And passersby see windows filled with vibrant and appealing artwork instead of an empty eyesore.

Art is a great way to keep a downtown vital and alive, not just during festivals or special events, but year-round. With its impressive permanent collection and a variety of changing exhibits throughout the year, the Ackland has been an artistic mainstay of downtown. Likewise, the Hanes Art Center next door provides valuable space for art faculty and students to display their work. The success of FRANK, the artist-owned gallery on Franklin Street, and the 2nd Friday Art Walk featuring local galleries and exhibit spaces are just two examples of Chapel Hill’s artistic vitality.

Chapel Hill has also been a strong supporter of public art, the best known examples being the 20 murals painted on walls all over town. Artist Michael Brown is restoring the murals as donations come in to The Painted Walls Project to pay for them. The University funded the restoration of “The Parade,” the whimsical mural along Porthole Alley that is painted on the University-owned Hill Building. The project was not only in support of public art, it was also a sound investment in the maintenance of a valuable downtown property.

Having a strong artistic presence also increases a town’s hipness. Some believe Durham is overtaking Chapel Hill and Carrboro as the cool corner of the Triangle. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let the Southern Part of Heaven and the Paris of the Piedmont outsource their cool to the Bull City.

If we as a community have any hope of attracting, retaining and nurturing what is called “the creative class,” we need to provide the support those artists need to be successful. But this is not just the job of public institutions. It also comes down to individuals. One of my favorite philosophers, Frank Zappa, once said, “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” Note the “and selling it” part. Support your local artists. Visit local galleries and shops, like the new Ackland Museum Store, and buy items when you do. When we make art part of our lives, we all get cool points.