In Visual Art and the Urban Evolution of the New South, author Deborah Pollack traces the creation and progression of public visual arts communities in six cities of the post–Civil War South: Atlanta, Charleston, New Orleans, Louisville, Austin, and Miami. While all of these cities tended to follow a common process, each also had distinctive features that shaped its particular path.
What, then, does it mean to have a vibrant art culture in a city? Pollack identifies characteristics critical to claiming a strong visual arts sector: practicing artists, art education, art exhibition, a public art museum, and an opportunity for an artist to make a living doing art. A fully realized artistic community meant a fully realized modern metropolis.
Supporters of the visual arts grounded their arguments in the New South creed put forth by Atlanta Constitution journalist Henry W. Grady. Art was a path to self-improvement, something necessary for southerners if they were to ever approach the North’s economic and cultural status. Public art demonstrated a city’s sophistication alongside economic achievement. In addition to Grady, in a quirkier vein, lectures delivered by Oscar Wilde on his 1882 tour extolling the values of aestheticism and the beauty of everyday life exerted significant influence over southerners seeking to bring high culture to their towns. Increased momentum for artistic activity followed in [End Page 257] his wake as he spoke across the South.
Commonalities among the cities included leadership by private artists and their patrons, the formation of local or regional arts groups, classes available to the public, and some kind of exhibition program, usually of regional work but sometimes including nationally recognized artists. Art pavilions were a standard feature of the numerous expositions produced during this period, and public art frequently took the form of Lost Cause memorials or other representations honoring the Confederacy. Local colleges facilitated the expansion of art outlets both through programs and curricula and through faculty members who participated in homegrown arts organizations. As with many aspects of cultural “improvement” in southern cities, women played important roles promoting the growth of artistic activities and participated as visual artists in their own right. All of these communities benefited from Works Progress Administration art programs during the Great Depression.
At the same time, unique aspects of each city shaped its arts community. Atlanta began with a relatively clean slate, its artistic development tied to its economic rise. Charleston, physically devastated, rebuilt previous traditions, shifting more and more energy into historic preservation. Louisville, farthest north, negotiated an artistic legacy of both triumph and Lost Cause, accommodating memorials honoring southern heroes along with Abraham Lincoln. New Orleans was an older, much more cosmopolitan city with existing artistic traditions whose annual Mardi Gras celebration provided an outlet unlike any other. Austin, the smallest of the cities studied, shared southern and western roots, as well as a history of being the capital of an independent nation. Its art, mostly commissioned by the state government, commemorated those origins in largely conventional ways. One wonders, for example, why the author did not choose Houston or Dallas, cities historically comparable and similar in size to her other subjects. For Miami, the youngest of the cities, the story is mostly twentieth century and occurs within a context of development and a heightened awareness of environmental factors. [End Page 258]
Pollack focuses on the most important individuals—artists and patrons—involved in developing the visual arts community in each city. The broader national or regional historical context is secondary to the story, but she provides a valuable account of an important aspect of southern urban culture. Art could be a tough sell in the South, but its supporters were dogged and resilient, working within the existing economic and political structure to add the visual arts to southern urban spaces.
PATRICIA BIXEL is dean of the School of Science and Humanities at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, and co-author of Seeing the New South: Race and Place in the Photography...