When I became mayor of my hometown, Gary, Indiana in 2012, we embarked on a journey to spark revitalization in our city. Gary had suffered decades of decline related to a changing economy and shifting property tax revenue.
This ultimately resulted in an exodus from the city, giving rise to vacant and abandoned buildings, a soaring poverty rate and concomitant crime. While we understood the importance of focusing on infrastructure, job creation and public safety, we also knew that in order to spur resurgence in the city, we needed to embrace creative placemaking – using the arts to improve design and management of public places -- to transform the city’s image among residents and outside entities. We quickly recognized the importance of public-private partnerships, and the investment of non-profit partners.
In the course of our planning, we embraced art as a viable tool to strengthen our local economy. We became eager partners for “pop-up art” initiatives, the promotion of emerging artists and the creation of special events to bring us together as well as attract visitors and new residents to our city.
Our administration also embraced opportunities to garner support from the philanthropic community, which could invest in areas that lacked public dollars. When Bloomberg Philanthropies announced its Public Art Challenge open to U.S. cities, we jumped at the opportunity to create a project unique to Gary and our needs.
The City of Gary collaborated with world-renowned artist Theaster Gates, PlaceLab, the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, and with support from Knight Cities Challenge, to create ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.
The concept was to reimagine a vacant downtown city building as a public attraction, gathering space, and culinary incubator. Theaster has a penchant for turning unused buildings into cultural institutions, combining adaptive reuse and community-driven initiatives that support neighborhood revitalization. And we found early on that we all firmly believed in the role public art can play in creating partnerships, in providing more visibility for the arts and talent in Gary, and in positively promoting our city.
We also agreed public art--combined with design, community engagement and private and government investment--can transform the way we imagine a city.
In June 2015 it was announced that Gary was one of the four winning projects of the over 200 proposals to the Public Art Challenge.
What’s unique about this art initiative is that ArtHouse’s programming and offerings have been designed to directly address needs in our community.
ArtHouse will be a cultural hub offering culinary training, cultural and artistic programs as well as commissioned visual artworks. Arthouse is taking an underutilized building through a metamorphosis and helping us to develop more food entrepreneurs and jobs in the food industry, in addition to being a significant magnet to the neighborhood.
As a result of our collective efforts, ArtHouse will be both practical and symbolic at the same time. By cultivating local entrepreneurism, the city will be positioned to jump start an unusually small restaurant community—creating employment in the city. It is one more effort to bring more life back to the city’s hub.
The project will complement the Gary State Building renovation, the replacement of a 20 year abandoned hotel with a downtown plaza boasting innovative green infrastructure, and a new mural depicting the Jackson 5, arguably the city’s most famous entertainers. However, the most vital outcome of ArtHouse is providing a source of pride for residents and evidence to others that Gary is determined to come back stronger than ever from the devastation caused by the steel industry’s decline.
People often ask me what is the most difficult aspect of rebuilding Gary. It is without a doubt getting people to believe in our city again.
When we see projects like ArtHouse come to life, we have every reason to believe that Gary can recapture its place in the heartland.
I look forward to the activation of ArtHouse, and the hope and inspiration it will bring to our city.
Karen Freeman-Wilson is the mayor of Gary, Indiana.