Last year, SVV and I organized River Romp in partnership with our friends at L&H Distributing as a way to fundraise for a mural and give a creative outlet to artists across the region. It was a whole lot of fun, but also a whole lot of work—from beer permits to insurance, venue rental to artist coordination—for a haggard husband-wife duo for whom this is not their job, and I didn’t really feel we had the bandwidth to do something this fall, in our busiest time of year at work but also in light of the new move and some major new work contracts. We did one anyway, with a twist—why not do a month-long mural festival in our community instead?
But let’s back up. In order to pull something off like public art, you need a community sponsor, and none of this would have ever been possible without Jack Daniel’s Distillery.
How our first mural festival came to be
We have these lovely friends, Devry and Danny Lamb, who are not only bleeding hearts for stray animals, but also patrons of public art. Last fall, after we’d installed our initial handful of murals in Manchester, Devry reached out to me. “Jack Daniel has this warehouse in Tullahoma, and I think it would be perfect for a mural,” she said. “I’ll work on it and see what I can make happen.”
We met a few times in the spring to discuss ideas, the excitement building with each passing happy hour, and then submitted a proposal for the team at Jack Daniel’s Distillery to review. Jack is based just up the road in Lynchburg and does a lot for the surrounding communities, much of which is not necessarily publicized, so public art was right in their wheelhouse. But as SVV and I tend to do, we dreamed big: Our initial idea went from a paint day to a paint month and was approved by Jack; much to our delight, our first mini-mural festival was born. We hoped to be able to install at least three murals, but there are always variables that can quickly escalate the price of a mural, so it was hard to know upfront just how much art we could do in Coffee County in one month.
Nevertheless, we got to work.
Converting to nonprofit status
If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past year, it’s that being a nonprofit opens up grant opportunities, but it also makes it easier to approach large companies like Brown-Forman. We were already a C corp registered with the state as a public benefit corporation, but then spent a solid month converting over to nonprofit, which was a lot of paperwork, but luckily we have more than a few lawyer friends—not to mention a CPA sister and her accountant husband—on our team. So while confusing at times, it wasn’t actually as bad as people had told us.
Everything went relatively smoothly, and we established our executive board (welcome fellow board member Emilie Hitch, pictured above!), bylaws, articles of incorporation and all the other necessary components being a nonprofit requires. For those of you looking to start a similar mural program in your town, I’d advise you to incorporate as a nonprofit out of the gate and hire both a CPA and lawyer you trust to make the process as painless as possible.
Finding partners whose vision jives with yours
One thing that is oh-so-important for SVV and me is letting the artist steer the creative reins. We’re curators, not dictators—we find muralists whose work we admire and ask them to create magic for us. What we do not do is art by committee, require host evaluation, paint signage or anything that’s blatantly promotional for a host wall—we’ve seen neighboring communities venture into this territory (paint wings, let the community dictate the art, require an extensive RFP process, etc.), and the result is sadly non-inspirational and not compatible with the pace that we’ve set ourselves.
The best kind of sponsor for your mural festival is the one whose vision totally jives with yours, something that is deciphered and established over time through communication and relationship-building. Once they understood the big-picture perspective, the Jack Daniel team put full trust in us to execute our vision and we can’t stress enough how critical this thought process was to the entire project.
Next, we had to find walls. The first wall we secured was an absolute dream of a wall. It stands at the entrance to Tullahoma’s downtown and towers some 30 feet by 50 feet alongside the railroad tracks. It was also in need of some major TLC. Take a look at the wall SVV spent three days patching, painting and prepping for the artist:
It took the building’s owner John Parker less than 10 minutes to agree to a mural. He’s a man after our own heart: an enthusiast who wants to see more art in this town. He even chipped in for supplies and had only one stipulation: that the piece be non-political. We also agreed to let him give a thumbs up or down to the final concept before we moved forward.
Next up, a friend had referred us to a local church, who then put us in touch with the Good Samaritan in Tullahoma. If there’s anywhere that needs a bit of color, it’s the folks who rely on donations to survive and who take care of a disadvantaged community. One of our big focuses is installing art in areas where it will be most impactful, and this part of town definitely falls under that guiding mission.
The other main wall, the one at Foothills Crafts that wound up hosting the Channing mural, happened out of circumstance, and you can read about how that came to be here. And another journalist friend hooked us up with a downtown restaurant who had been wanting something on their brick facade, they just weren’t sure what to do or how to accomplish it.
Lastly, Jack gave us permission to paint one of their properties that also needed a bit of a facelift. It looks over onto the heavily-trafficked Highway 41A corridor and the Tullahoma High School, where I went to school, and is designed to showcase the power of unleashing the creative inside every human being.
Recruiting muralists for our first ARTober
The problem for us is not finding muralists but finding enough walls (and funding) to hire them all. We believe in paying creatives a fair wage because we ourselves are creatives constantly being low-balled by businesses, and we recognize the value we bring to the table. Our work as journalists and photographers has introduced us to talented artists across the globe, and our database of muralists we want to work with is large, so it’s not about finding someone, but finding the right fit, the right timing and the right wall.
Around the time we pulled the trigger for the mural festival we dubbed ARTober, Tallahassee-based muralists Sarah Painter and Cosby Hayes reached out. We’d been in contact over Instagram after falling in love with one of their Memphis murals, and I told them if they were ever passing through Tennessee to let me know. They did, we booked them for a 10-day stay in the area, and they painted the gorgeous “You Are Not Alone” mural on the side of Foothills Crafts in Manchester to raise awareness of bullying and suicide prevention.
Nathan Brown was on my bucket list of muralists to work with, and he happened to hit me up in August to let me know he was moving back to Nashville right as this was all going down. It was kismet! He came down to meet us, we showed him the John Parker wall, and it was an instant match. We asked him to tap into the creative and show us what he wanted to do, and the problem was that we loved everything. In the end, I’m so happy we went with SVV’s gut on the final selection as the “Landscape of the Heart” represents not just the heart of downtown Tullahoma, but the heart of color in the area—and the explosion of color that is about to take place. Plus, it just matched the building better.
Mobe and Folek, a pair of Nashville muralists we’ve come to know and love, were the next on our list. We worked with them on the Manchester postcard in summer 2018 and had promised them we’d save a space for them to do something more creative, as we can’t get enough of the murals they’ve collaboratively painted all over Nashville. We kept our promise, and they delivered: “Digital Madonna” was born on the side of the Jack warehouse in Tullahoma over this past weekend.
Through Mobe, we met the amazing Ty Christian, whose Harmony series has stopped me in the streets of Nashville on many occasions. He connected with us over the summer, and his mission is one that we can get behind wholeheartedly: building a bridge between people of all race, religion and class through art. He painted the third in his Harmony series on the side of the Good Samaritan in Tullahoma. This guy is not only an insanely talented artist, but the best of humans. In fact, every one of these muralists we will absolutely hire again; they’re simply the best of the best!
One thing I love using public art for is creating a bit of a scavenger hunt, which is why I was so drawn to Chris Tidwell’s work when I first saw it a year ago. forBecks, as he’s known in the art world, creates his “Play Well” vignettes by stencil all over Tennessee, and I was stoked that One22West in Tullahoma agreed to host one of his LEGO Men. It went up in the blink of an eye, as you can see below.
All murals that DMA-events has produced are listed and mapped on our official mural website. We’re at 13 now, and we don’t plan to stop anytime soon. 😉
The importance of community buy-in
Everyone wants to benefit from public art once it’s done, but few want to provide the front-end sponsorships necessary to make it happen, which is why Jack Daniel’s support is even more invaluable than they probably realize. We’re constantly being asked “can you paint this building?” or “hey, a mural on the underpass would be nice,” but very few businesses or city entities offer to contribute to the cause. This is our nonprofit, something we do on the “side” when we’re not working in tourism marketing, yet it’s started to consume anywhere from a third to a half of our time. We’ve contributed well over $50,000 in public art to the county in the last year through grants and individual fundraising, but the actual impact is immeasurable. I say that not to pat us on the back by any means, as we’re simply the curators, but rather to encourage city governments, CVBs, DMOs and all organizations with marketing means to support the arts because art isn’t free, and exposure doesn’t pay an artist’s rent. One mural does so much more for a community’s well-being—economic vitality, civic pride, mental health, branding, etc.—than a billboard (and is way more cost-effective, too). Plus, it’s great marketing for your business, the kind of cachet money can’t buy!
We would never have been able to do any murals, let alone 13, were in not for our generous partners: to date, that has included Jack Daniel’s, L&H Distributing, Coffee County Bank and First National Bank of Manchester, the first organization to believe in our vision. If you’d like to see more murals, in our community or in your own, consider supporting your local mural movement in whatever way you can—whether that’s providing wall space or offering to underwrite an entire mural installation. We’re hoping one day our own city sees the benefit of direct investments in public art like this (as so many vibrant communities across the country have done) but in the meantime are grateful for the private individuals who do get it.
So what’s next? Well, funny you should ask….
In 2020, we’re planning an even bigger mural push. We already have a handful of communities outside of Tullahoma who have signed on, and if you’re a city in Tennessee who wants to be considered, email me and we’ll chat.
I cannot thank the Lambs and Jack Daniel’s enough for believing in our vision and helping us bring it to life. Special thanks also goes to Christopher Equipment who has enabled us to install more art with discounted rental equipment.