Writer: Liz Palmer
4 min read December 2022 — From green space prioritization to public art partnerships with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the arts and culture industry has been an important piece of economic development in Northeast Florida over the last year. Diana Donovan, executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville and Friends of James Weldon Johnson Park’s Executive Director Liz McCoy shared their thoughts with Invest: on the necessity of their organizations and industry in the region’s continued growth.
What were the most significant highlights and milestones for your organization in 2022?
Diana Donovan: We have had monumental, historic increases for the City of Jacksonville and from the State of Florida. One of the things we know very well about the creative economy is that everything thrives and is successful when it’s connected and meaningful and you are pouring into the community’s heart as an economic driver. The Cultural Council has been a thought leader in trying to reframe Jacksonville from not only celebrating our arts and culture community, but having it be seen as essential to quality of life. We have 810 new residential units as of June 2022 coming to Downtown Jacksonville – those are people coming from across the country who will need things to do and want to feel connected to this community. They will do that through arts and culture by walking through a park, reading a book, going to museums and shows, etc. We are enhancing the quality of life of all ages and broadening the scope of what the City has to offer residents. There is a significant ROI on creative culture in economic growth.
We are so deeply honored to be partnering with the Jacksonville Jaguars. One of my favorite things about this partnership is that we don’t have to be seen as just an NFL city or an arts and culture city; these are two very vital components to our city’s identity. When you add arts and culture investment to downtown development and revitalization, it becomes a business development renaissance. We will be doing four murals, two sculptures and bike racks. The Jacksonville Jaguars have been very intentional about allowing community feedback, and public art is a reflection of that. We’re really excited to see Shad Khan, the team’s owner, set this precedent for the entire NFL. We want to ensure arts and culture are never separate from this downtown development. Downtown Jacksonville has the largest contingency of public art throughout the entire city. It also has the largest grouping of cultural service grantees (CSGs) that are organizations such as the MOSH, the MOCA, the Florida Theatre and others. It’s in this space that arts and culture, government and business thread together to make our Downtown what it is today.
Liz McCoy: Creating our strategic plan has been one of the biggest projects that I have done in my capacity here. It was a six-month process and we worked with a committee of 12 people, plus two consultants that helped us through the process of dissecting where we have been and where we want to go. The organization was formed in 2014 and its first goal was to make the park clean and safe. Back then, the park suffered from nefarious acts, it was a scary thing to walk just from one building to the other across the park.
We felt we reached our goal pretty well, despite some interesting things that happened along the way. As we are now hopefully arriving at the new normal, we needed to regroup. Things are happening downtown that are different from what was happening pre-pandemic. The development downtown is becoming more about housing and less about commercial, so we knew that we needed to make a shift in relationship to that. We started looking at ways in which we could become the amenity that we wanted to be for the downtown development. A lot of the apartments that are going to be developed within downtown are ascribed to highly urban environments. They are going to need an outdoor amenity space. That is what we want to become for the downtown residents that are coming within the next year and a half.
What would you say investment interest is in your sector currently?
Donovan: We are very encouraged that the Mayor’s office partnered with the City Council to step up in tremendous ways for the arts and culture community. We have seen multiple multi-million dollar investments over the past few years and gone on to a fully-funded state grant at $150,000 and enhanced COJ CARES Act funding to leverage federal funding in helping organizations deeply impacted by the pandemic. The resiliency of our arts and culture community is extraordinary, innovative and inspiring on multiple levels. If we hadn’t seen the federal, state and city officials and private donors step up as they did, we would be in a very different place economically. In addition to that, we have been working in public arts and equity and have been encouraged to see Councilmember Randy DeFoor add $640,000 for public art to her councilmember enrichment list for the budget. That’s equity and art in every district. This sets the tone for Jacksonville’s pride in public art. The budget is the true way to keep score in a city’s values, and it’s exciting to see that budget enhanced because our CSGs have an approximate $92 million economic impact. Because of our role in the community, we speak the language of arts, culture and business and government advocacy. We are a bridge builder between these groups, which is an honor. In the past fiscal year, we saw over 350,000 admissions to cultural events supported by the City of Jacksonville. The City supported over 9,000 events and performances and over 1,000 jobs created. We have also been able to add capital grants. It’s transformational.
McCoy: Jacksonville has the largest parks department in the U.S. Unfortunately, it has historically had small staffs and small budgets. The good news is that in 2022, the city did get significant funding to help the parks in general. How that relates to our park remains to be seen, because we are still working all of that out. We believe that the development of the downtown waterfront is only going to help bring people to downtown, which in turn will help bring traffic into the city core and our urban park, which is just a few blocks north. At present, that space along the Riverwalk does not have a whole lot of trees, while we have a bunch and a ton of natural shade. Our park is the oldest one in the city at 156 years old.
How are you leveraging technology to further your mission?
Donovan: The virtual sphere of arts and culture is so exciting. NFTs, digital art, how artists own their artwork on this new digital platform – it’s all so interesting. When you think about COVID and how performance arts are historically meant to be performed and experienced in-person, it changes the translation when the interaction is made through a screen instead. We have seen a lot of virtual experimentation and virtual reality through projects such as the Van Gogh immersive experiences. Technology is learning how to work for us instead of us learning how to work for technology. Arts and culture are playing a role in that. One of the areas we touch on in advocacy is reframing the thinking around how vital this community is – how many times did you turn on Netflix during the pandemic? That reaches so many people. Connecting through virtual storytelling was a life blood for us. It has revolutionized how humanity connects and broadened our horizons on arts and culture’s role in healing from tragedies like COVID. I love seeing arts and culture heal through a virtual platform, having the virtual platform work for the community as opposed to us working for the platform.
McCoy: That is one of the areas that we need to improve upon the most, and one of the things that we have discussed internally with the city about how we want the park to be for the future. The design that we eventually want to have for the park needs to have technology built into it. For instance, instead of a sculpture, maybe we would have an LED wall that had all about James Weldon Johnson’s life, which would generate more awe and an interactive experience. We definitely want to design this for the future, even though we love our history. We want to move it forward.
We would also like the park to serve as a location that is more connected with the city council so awareness is raised among our residents about the issues being discussed. I would love to have speakers that talk about the local issues and live stream the city hall meetings in the park.
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