“The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth.” — Ezra Pound
Paul Rutkovsky, a studio art professor at Florida State University, easily gets ahead of himself as he describes what excites him from inside his building tucked along Gaines Street, across the street from tattoo parlors and next door to a bar and a clothing retailer.
No, it’s not the work currently being done on Phase III of Gaines, beyond Woodward Avenue, a stretch that is booming with new housing, businesses and nightlife that attract young professionals and students.
Rutkovsky is excited about what’s finally about to occur steps away from the back door of his neat but nondescript building at 517 W. Gaines St., which he has dubbed “The Plant.”
In August, a vision that Rutkovsky has had at least since 2008 will take shape as work begins on the “Art Alley” project that will transform a 10-foot-wide city-owned easement that runs from Gaines Street (next to St. Michael’s Pub) about 350 feet to St. Francis Street in the All Saints District.
The project should be completed by late October or early November, incorporating yet another element into the Gaines Street/All Saints District revitalization.
The project will cost an estimated $90,000, cobbled together from various sources: $25,000 from a National Wildlife Foundation/Wells Fargo Foundation grant, $25,000 from the city, $23,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency, and in-kind contributions from Wood+Partners Inc., which is donating all of the design work, and Kimley-Horn and Associates, which is donating the decking and boardwalk design.
The project is another example of a public-private partnership designed to capture the creativity for which Gaines Street is noted while also helping to advance the city’s goal of creating a pedestrian-friendly environment in an area where parking is at a premium.
The “Art Alley’” model is being used in cities such as Seattle and Austin, where artists, planners and small-business owners have sold their vision of bringing life to alleyways in revitalized districts that have suddenly become hot properties.
It is a stretch of property that Rutkovsky and his art students adopted a few years ago by removing heaps of trash, litter and other obstacles. Today, a faded blue Art Alley sign hangs near the entrance off Gaines Street. The walkway is rough in spots, overgrown with weeds, and doesn’t have much distinction. There are objects of art here and there. Someone recently left a decorative white porcelain vase that sits near the St. Francis Street entrance. The city also cleaned up another alley that runs behind Rutkovsky’s building and south of Gaines Street.
“On a basic level, I’d like people to visit the alleys not only to walk through as a shortcut to save time but to see and appreciate the beautiful plants and sculpture and other installations that might make people curious and maybe invite them to slow down, reflect and observe what is directly in front of them — an exceptionally rare neighborhood in Tallahassee,” Rutkovsky said. And, since the property is halfway between the Florida A&M and Florida State campuses, the artist hopes it can become a bridge-builder for students.
John Baker, an administrator in the city’s Department of Environmental Policy and Energy Resources, is the point person on the project.
“It’s already a destination place,” Baker said. “The improvements will allow people to display art, plant flowers and create another unique area within the Gaines Street District. Other cities offer unique art alleys featuring artwork, even graffiti. The project has tremendous community support. It will be another neat attraction that we have in Tallahassee.”
Transforming the alley includes:
Liz Stenning is project manager for the International Sustainability Institute in Seattle, an organization that has been instrumental in creating the art alley concept and art installation and promotion in that city, particularly the historic downtown Pioneer Square neighborhood. Rutkovsky has visited that site and is familiar with the institute’s work.
Stenning said the concept grew out of desire to make Pioneer Square more attractive and vibrant. Over the years, the First Thursday Art Walk has become popular, and the idea is taking off in other parts of the city. Commercial photo shoots and even wedding parties are held there.
“We’re very fortunate in that the artists came to us,” she said of the neighborhood’s Nord Alley. “The artists invite their friends and families, and they also come out and support other businesses nearby. Just generally improving the alleys makes a place feel safer. It opens up small businesses and gives students a way to be creative.”
Similar alley projects are successful in Austin, Cincinnati and Sacramento, she said. “It’s something that really captured people’s imagination. We get a lot of calls.”
Rutkovsky also envisions opening up “The Plant” as a quasi-community center where people come and share ideas and where artists can create.
“It’s not just for the artists, but for the community,” he said, standing in the middle of the non-air conditioned building.
“When people come in here, I want to listen. The future of the 21st century is listening. I believe in listening to the neighborhood and not just telling them what they need.”
You can comment on associate editor Byron Dobson’s column under Opinion at tallahassee.com. Contact him at email@example.com or 599-2258, follow him on Twitter at @byrondobson or send a friend request on Facebook.
WANT TO HELP?
If you are interested in volunteering or contributing to the project, contact the city’s Department of Environmental Policy and Energy Resources at 891-2476 or Paul Rutkovsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.