Spotlight on Texas's Downtown Bryan Association
Spectators enjoy The Circus, a Charlie Chaplin silent film, projected onto the facade of the Queen Theater in Downtown Bryan during October's First Friday. Photo by Stuart Villanueva, courtesy of The Eagle.
"I think for a community to grow, as opposed to stagnating, art is an important aspect that inspires that sense of wonder---that sense of 'what if.'" --- Rene Graham Lawrence
Asked to describe the downtown community of Bryan, Texas, Rene Graham Lawrence, project director of Downtown Bryan Association's ArtFill project, used the word "family." As Lawrence described, "There is just that feeling that you can engage with anyone there and everyone really seems to support each other, accept each other and really helps and strides to succeed together." The community, which is nestled in the state's Brazos Valley along with nearby College Station, is also characterized by a spirit of innovation. As Lawrence noted, "All these ideas floating around, I think of them as kindling for a fire and we are really ramping up to an explosion here." One such artful explosion is ArtFill, a portable structure that will serve as a flexible sculptural element on which artists can build a public artwork, which will itself serve as a way to aesthetically fill currently vacant lots in Bryan's downtown. Downtown Bryan Association recently received an NEA Challenge America Fast-Track grant of $10,000 to support the project. We spoke with Lawrence about the importance of the grant to the project, what sparked the idea in the first place, and why arts and culture are a key component of the city's economic redevelopment plan.
NEA: Can you talk about the Downtown Bryan Association---why it was started and its mission?
RENE GRAHAM LAWRENCE: So the Downtown Bryan Association really began as an effort to reverse and recover from the dramatic decline of the downtown district that we experienced during the ‘70s and ‘80s and even through the early ‘90s. That was a direct effect of growth of malls and large shopping centers that were at the edges of Bryan-College Station. So our organization coincided with the city council’s decision to redevelop the downtown core area, and it really is a great example of what can be done with a government/non-profit partnership involving community volunteers. Neither entity could have been as successful, I think, or had the success we've experienced, without this partnership. Previously we were known as the Downtown Bryan Economic Development Association, which, as the name suggests, was really about helping economic and commercial development at the core of downtown to bring local businesses back. But we quickly realized that a revitalization of a community is not just about businesses, it’s not just about commerce. It’s about the entirety of the community that is much more than that. And as such, we adopted our core focus as commerce, community, and culture, kind of a three-armed mantra, so to speak. And we found all three of these are equally important in building a sustainable core and as such we seek out programming---and we help [develop] programming---to help impact and grow all of those [aims]. The Downtown Bryan Association really plays a unique role in that we're the catalysts, the advocates, the coordinator and facilitator for community programming in the downtown district, and I think this project particularly, ArtFill, is a great example of that.
NEA: What are some of the projects DBA has supported to date?
LAWRENCE: I think there are two big accomplishments that we like to talk about a lot. The first one is First Friday. A lot of communities have something similar to this, which basically is… kind of like a big community block party or open house [on the first Friday of every month]. It started off as an art walk that just went from one little gallery, or one little space, to another, and it has exploded into live music, artist demonstrations, art exhibitions, local foods, and local flavors at every corner…. We've really been a part of nourishing that and growing that and bringing in and promoting local artists, as well as bringing in folks from nearby surrounding areas. We're only an hour-and-a-half from Austin, an hour-and-a-half from Houston, so, we'll bring in folks you might not always have a chance to see.
The second [accomplishment] is the Queen Theater. The Queen Theater was built in 1914, it’s an old theater house that's right on the main drag in downtown Bryan. It has gorgeous art-deco frontage design, neon lights, and a rotating crown at the top. In it's heyday back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s it was the center of everything that was happening downtown. Then, when everything else kind of went south in the ‘70s and’ 80s, the theater also closed, and it just went to ruin…. And the Downtown Bryan Association, we got together and decided to purchase it and help rebuild it and turn it back into a community center…. We've restored the exterior of it and currently are working on the interior. We're raising funds and developing a final program for it. It's really kind of a visible project of the Downtown Bryan Association. If downtown Bryan had a skyline, it would definitely be a prominent part of our skyline. It's a great building and we're really, really excited about it.
And then other things that we've done---there are just a lot of smaller things throughout the year. We're host to many cultural and entrepreneurial endeavors within downtown. For example, there’s Rock the Republic, which is a weekend-long festival that includes all Texas bands. There’s the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival. We've had poetry slams here in downtown for a while, but I believe it was two years ago that they started the Grand Slam Poetry Festival, which was the first-ever, statewide poetry spoken word competition…. So, we have a lot of things going on. There's also an incubator here at Technology and Science---a creative incubator space called the Innovation Underground. It's a co-working space for young start-ups, and we've helped, along with the city, to get that going and to help promote it, and keep it thriving.
NEA: Downtown Bryan Association received its NEA Challenge American Fast-Track grant for the ArtFill project. I'm curious as to what sparked the idea for that project. Also, can you please describe what it actually will be, and what you hope it accomplishes?
LAWRENCE: The Art Fill project literally arose out of a conversation about the future of the northside in downtown Bryan. Downtown Bryan grew linearly along the railroad and the north really largely consisted of metal shed-type warehouse buildings, nothing really of architectural significance. Over the years, we're talking the last 100 years, the shed buildings really deteriorated and became unused and neglected spaces that actually become a safety hazard. The city of Bryan took the initiative to purchase the lots, tear down the non-significant buildings and leave any significant buildings. They also went in and updated infrastructure. When the buildings were gone, it left empty lots, which we all were kind of looking at as a blank canvas. They're prime for redevelopment, but in the meantime---it takes time for the larger urban scale development projects to happen--- we're all just anxiously waiting and anticipating what's going to happen there. And in this conversation Art Fill was the answer for what can we do in the time being. How do we fill this fantastic temporary void in this Texas town urban landscape?
So the concept of the project was to activate a temporary void in the middle of an active urban landscape, utilizing community collaboration and productivity. Its purpose is to create an anchoring piece for the north end of downtown, which, as I mentioned, is largely vacant right now. The built structure itself is very simple: it's an open steel frame structure in bays of approximately 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot, from which a sculptural or interactive installation will extend from, anchor to, grow on, float within. It will really be up to the artist---the lead artist and the design team---to figure out how they want to utilize the framework. It's really for something to kind of live within or on. I think the most important aspect of the project and the most powerful aspect of the project is that it will be continually renewed in conjunction with the Texas A&M University school of architecture. They have a Department of Visualization, design studios, and fabrication studios that will be involved in the design process with an artist. Throughout the semester, once the design is picked and they start going through fabrication, we'll also involve Bryan ISD students to help with the actual production and final installation of the design. So, basically, this means that every year there's going to be a new piece of art within this framework. Along with that, renewed interest, and hopefully, you know, even anticipation of what's going to happen. So, I think that sums up the project in a nutshell.
NEA: Is it still meant to be temporary---the structure itself?
LAWRENCE: My current thinking on it is that we know at some point there's going to be a larger development on the North End. [The art work] is currently going to occupy one of the empty lots, but as things start to develop, because it's in multiple bays, we can actually break it apart into pieces---so, then we'd have one piece that could go to this small spot between these two buildings, or this small spot that sits in the middle of a roundabout. So, it can actually change as development happens. It doesn't need to go away. It just gets broken apart and dispersed throughout downtown.
NEA: You’ve talked about how you'll have students who are actually involved in the fabrication, but how else do you think of the project as engaging or benefiting the community?
LAWRENCE: I think that it's going to engage the community, as you said, as producers of a piece of art, but also, the community as consumers of art. Simply put---it's a project by the community for the community. It's one thing to commission a fantastic renowned artist to come in and create an installation for you---we all love that. But it's really an entirely different thing to garner the incredible talent we have here right in our community to create our own installation. There's a sense of ownership and pride when the community's involved. People from the community can point at something and say, “That's my project. I designed that. I worked on that.” So that sense of ownership, I think, is incredibly important in how it benefits and engages the community.
NEA: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of getting the NEA Challenge America grant to the project?
LAWRENCE: The NEA grant makes this project possible and paramount. [The grant is] going to pay for physical cost, such as materials and labor, but the grant substantiates our vision---substantiates our ideas. The grant gives us the funds to bring it to life, but the fact that it's with the National Endowment for the Arts tells everyone, "Hey, Bryan has something really interesting going on---this really is a great project." Which in terms of getting the attention of both in community and outside the community---getting the attention of stakeholders in the general public---it's hugely important.
NEA: Why do you think it's important for a community to engage with the arts the way that Bryan has?
LAWRENCE: To me, the arts are really a way to imagine and speculate about what could be---about other worlds, other realities, other places, other methods. I think for a community to grow, as opposed to stagnating, art is an important aspect that inspires that sense of wonder---that sense of “what if.” In addition to that, I think, in the same vein, these qualities are important for successful entrepreneurial endeavors as well, which, as we know, leads economic growth in communities. So, the arts really are an important and meaningful way to activate a community.
NEA: If a community visited Bryan and said, “Hey, we want to do this same sort of thing---really get the arts at the table and reignite our community through the arts," what kind of advice would you give them?
LAWRENCE: Well, I think that it's definitely a big endeavor. I think in order to tackle a big endeavor you have to dream big. Most importantly I would say “Dream it and/or do it” would be my advice. I say “and/or” because not everyone is a dreamer or a visionary, nor is everyone a do-er. And that's fine. Some people are right-brained, some people are left-brained…. But if you're a dreamer and what you do is have these great ideas, find someone that can help you realize the dream, someone who knows how to make it happen. If you're a do-er, and you're not constantly thinking of ideas, but you know exactly how to get things done, then find a dreamer who has the most fantastic ideas, and then collaborate. Collaboration is key, especially in communities, because you just can't go at it alone. Once you have the dream and the methods to get it done, get stakeholders involved---the folks who have the best interests, have been in the community long-term, who have family ties and roots, property owners, anyone you can think of who has a stake in the community. Encourage them to get involved, as much as possible. I think that's the recipe that you start with.
NEA: I just have one final question. In terms of your project and the work you're doing in downtown Bryan, what does “Art Works” mean?
LAWRENCE: I really love this question. I actually thought about it for a long time last night, and I had a couple different ways I want to answer it, but it boiled it down to, I think, art works in terms of Bryan means that art does indeed work. It contributes, art thrives, art brings us together---it works. As in, it is an effective tool to do all these things. For commerce, for community, and for culture---it works.
Visit the NEA News Room to learn more about our most recent round of Challenge America Fast-Track grants.