Tokamak

The Tokamak mural at the corner of Main and Taylor

Lee Snelgrove wants you to care about public art. It’s been a high priority for him since taking over in 2013 as executive director of One Columbia for Arts and History, the city-funded nonprofit tasked with supporting the local cultural community to help grow tourism. 

Fostering and promoting public art is key to One Columbia’s efforts to seed a vibrant and vital visual identity for the city. Through its Public Art Initiative, the organization has maintained an ongoing call to artists for more than five years. In that time, it has facilitated 30-some-odd projects, including the installation of new pieces (such as the October unveiling of the amphitheater-enlivening Hydro Power mural in Riverfront Park) and upkeep of existing works (such as the October facelift of the Ra Obelisk, a sandstone pillar in the Mill District painted with the titular Egyptian sun god and other symbols and hieroglyphs).

But One Columbia’s Public Art Directory had fallen behind its other efforts. Built into the organization’s website when it arrived in 2013, it had become increasingly incomplete and hard to navigate.

That changes today. This morning, One Columbia unveiled a revamped directory. Having spent the last year getting it built and collecting pictures and information about myriad works, the organization now offers a resource that’s easily searchable — by name, artist or other keywords, in addition to city, theme and type — and packed with photos and detail-rich descriptions and histories. Funding for the new directory (which you can find at publicart.onecolumbiasc.com) came out of One Columbia’s regular budget.

At present, 110 murals, sculptures, monuments and other works are loaded onto the directory. Though the organization’s purview is the City of Columbia, the listings also include pieces in Blythewood and spots in Lexington County, seeking to provide a holistic view of what the area has to offer. 

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time,” Snelgrove says. “We had a directory on the existing website, but it wasn’t very good.”

“The goal is essentially just to showcase all these pieces,” he adds. “We wanted to give enough context to each piece, as much as we could. We wanted to have the availability to add in plenty of photos, even historic photos, and any information we could about [each piece’s] establishment, like who funded it, how the project came about, link to articles if we could, maybe eventually be able to have some videos of interviews with artists and other things. We’ve been able to get most of it. There’s a lot of pieces where there’s just no information about them. They’re just on property, and nobody on that property knows what they are, doesn’t know who owns them or who maintains them.”

He also hopes to add guided tours, text- and audio-based, to the site in the future.

“[One] other thing we’re able to do with the website is build quote-unquote collections,” Snelgrove says. “So I can feature all the pieces in, say, the Main Street District, so that they and other organizations or businesses can show off that or what’s immediately around that. Richland Library has a huge collection — let’s showcase all those pieces, and they can actually link to it, and that way they don’t have to rebuild that. We can do that for each of the hospitality districts.” 

One Columbia Public Art Administrator SaBrina Jeffcoat, who is leading the charge to catalog local works, speaks to the exacting effort to find and verify details.

“One of the other challenges has been really discerning what is the actual information for each piece,” she notes. “I found some pieces where two different groups had taken ownership of it, or it’s changed hands over time or there are duplicates.”

For instance, the directory includes two versions of the World War I monument American Doughboy, one in Olympia and one in the South Carolina Memorial Garden.

Snelgrove hopes this thorough survey of Columbia’s public art will bring benefits beyond facilitating audience engagement. The listings should make it easier to identify and demonstrate which pieces require maintenance, making it easier to rally the necessary funds. They should also prove a useful tool as One Columbia keeps striving to attract artists from here and elsewhere to add new public art, making it easier for the artists to see where and how they might fit in, and easier for the organization to identify which areas are in need.

“We’ll be able to show examples of things quicker,” Snelgrove says. “Then we can look for empty spots. Our public art program started downtown because it was logical — there’s foot traffic, there’s the supporters, the businesses you can pull from. The goal would be to move it into communities and let them have pieces that they can identify or rally behind, community murals that really speak to them.”

Jeffcoat notes that one particularly daunting task was coming up with even-handed descriptions for racially charged monuments — such as the African American History Monument and J. Marion Sims Monument on the grounds of the State House — at a time when such pieces have become increasingly divisive.

“We have a lot of contentious pieces,” she says. “It was one of the challenges for me, finding articles from both sides, or trying to be less opinionated about the description of it. I used to work for Columbia SC 63, so having that perspective of the monuments versus this article from The State that’s like, ‘We love it.’ I think it should all be shared. Let people talk and think.”

Both Snelgrove and Jeffcoat emphasize that the directory will always be a work in progress. Members of the community offering input isn’t just welcome, it’s kinda the point.

“Give us information,” Snelgrove offers. “Tell us where we’re missing things. Maybe what we don’t have right. And we’ll do something to get it in there with information. We can’t have our eyes everywhere. I just can’t see every piece of public art in this town. And a lot of people have that sort of social history in their mind, they remember before that piece was there, why that piece got put there in that neighborhood, and we don’t always have that.”   

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