Artist Fund Gets Creative to Bring Art and Ideas to Downtown Raleigh
By Karlie Justus Marlowe
This summer, on the corner of downtown Raleigh’s Martin and Wilmington streets, there was an explosion of light – and creativity.
In an empty storefront at 17 East Martin Street, artist Lincoln Hancock installed a temporary rainbow of neon lights that glowed in bursts of patterns visible from the outside through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The site-specific work of art, titled Flag, featured 64 vertically mounted LED tubes suspended from the ceiling. And while the lights are powered by open-source Arduino software, the urban diorama is the result of a new art fund created to directly pay artists for cutting-edge art installations in the capital city.
“Money that goes straight to artists through awards, exhibitions and stipends is super limited, and Flight Fund fills that gap,” said Brandon Cordrey, executive director at Visual Art Exchange. “Without Flight, I don’t know where Lincoln would have gotten that money.”
Flight Fund, a citizen-organized fund designed to propel creative urban projects in Raleigh, is led by Raleigh creative thought leaders Pam Blondin and Jed Gant. Blondin, owner of downtown retailer DECO Raleigh, and Gant, who runs the New Raleigh social channels and The Raleigh Mural Project, are self-professed “natural overachievers” who combined their experience and creative contacts to mutually benefit artists and their home city.
“When it comes to creating public art, there are two barriers: financial and regulations,” Gant said, referencing the city’s signage limitations that can restrict public art. “The immediate goal of Flight is to take away the financial burden, and then try to work with the people who could change the regulations.”
To tackle the problem, the pair got together with the Visual Art Exchange, a nonprofit creativity incubator, gallery and artist hub that exhibits the work of more than 1,300 artists in 60 exhibitions annually in downtown Raleigh, in 2015. VAE’s team suggested a fiscal sponsorship model, which extends a 501(c)(3) nonprofit umbrella to individuals or funds and had been a successful framework for downtown festival Sparkcon.
“They had their own projects on the side beforehand, and shared the frustration that no funding was going to individual artists. We intersected and both parties knew that was exactly what we needed, and the fiscal sponsorship was born,” said Cordrey, who recently took the reigns at VAE after three years as director of exhibitions. “We established a relationship to give them the help they needed with the experience we had with artist proposals, contracts, insurance policies. Those are things we already do.”
“I spent 30 years in nonprofits before doing this, so I knew about fiscal sponsorships,” said Blondin, who had previously worked as a regional director for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “I knew it was a model their board was wanting to try anyway, and thought I could be a good beta tester for them.”
Once that foundation was in place, Blondin and Gant set out to raise money, install art, and repeat. In just over a year’s time, the duo has tackled a pop-up retail store fundraiser, the Flag installation, and a large-scale mural by David Eichenberger on a private residence on the eastern side of the city, all with one goal is mind.
“We advocate for pushing beyond the boring,” said Blondin.
To pay for these projects, Blondin and Gant had to get just as creative with their fundraising efforts. The Flight pop-up shop opened during the 2015 holiday season in the space Flag was later installed, a before - and after – testament to the fund’s results. They worked with Edge of Urge store owner Jessie Williams to curate a mix of gifts, jewelry and more, in a space that had previously sat empty on a busy corner in downtown.
“Bill King at the Downtown Raleigh Alliance is really interested in activating the storefronts part of the formula of revitalizing downtown,” said Blondin, who allocated 10% of the shop’s sales to Flight, raising $7,000. “I thought, what if we did it with a fundraising component and used it as an opportunity to expose the Flight brand?”
Flight makes a point to brand its projects with its name and logo, as a way to share its mission and pique the interest of community donors. The name and paper airplane logo is a reference to North Carolina’s most creative risk takers, the Wright brothers.
“We started thinking about the idea of the Wright Brothers setting a precedent for inventing things and taking a chance, and essentially the idea of jumping off,” said Gant. “They went up to this point at Kitty Hawk and jumped off. Until they jumped they didn’t know. We’re building this thing, hopefully it will fly.”
Hancock’s Flag installation is slated to come down in the fall with a closing celebration, but Flight already has another project with the city underway as it looks to expand the definition of urban art.
“Art isn’t the thing; it’s about creativity,” said Blondin. “Let’s redefine what a mural is – maybe it’s a light show or includes water. We have so many creative people here, let’s support them.”
Looking to the future, Flight continues to focus on improving and changing regulations and financial aspects that artists find prohibitive, while pushing the boundaries of public art in a city that’s finally finding its footing in urban development and design.
“I’m excited to see what they come up with next,” said Cordrey.