In the quiet town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, there is an old AT&T building. It sat quiet, much like the town, for years, a grey set of blocks in a wide parking lot. It was functional, but the exterior became an eyesore for the nearby residents. And for one artist, it became an opportunity to talk about important issues, and share some beauty with a small Tennessee city. The City of Chattanooga saw the building as an opportunity rather than simply a problem, and the result was a mural that’s as interactive as it is tied to American history.
Chattanooga contacted nationally-praised artist Meg Saligman for the project, raising over $200,000 in the process to help her create something beautiful, significant, and appropriate. The project, after all, involved an entire building, not simply a single wall, and that meant Saligman was going to need time, supplies, and help. The project allowed Saligman the opportunity to hire six Chattanooga artists to help, giving them valuable paid professional experience and the opportunity to work on a collaborative project in their hometown.
Saligman’s design for the mural was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and was unveiled on January 18, 2016, three days shy of what would have been the civil rights leader’s 87th birthday. Saligman took inspiration from the renowned leader and decided that the mural should engage the audience on multiple levels. With a project of such magnitude, creating activities, it seems, is a good way to keep an audience looking. She used Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as inspiration for some activities, recreating metaphors and visual imagery found in that beautiful and important speech. Nines were also hidden throughout the mural on all sides of the building, and familiar faces from the period were used.
As for the artist herself, Meg Saligman is a living legend in the public art community. Named one of the ten most influential American muralists of the past decade by the Public Art Review in 2006, she has won numerous awards and created projects around the country. She specializes in absorbing local styles, mostly by collaborating with local artists, to bring something to the public that is both familiar, given it is part of their community, and created with intent and serious artistic talent. The results, as the citizens of Chattanooga can attest, are outstanding.
Saligman’s mural in Chattanooga demonstrates two key things about public art: its ability to capture and hold attention and the importance of collaboration. With Saligman, she chose to use local artists to create something meaningful for the city, acting as a project manager to help some of the city’s artists create a piece with local flavour. The end result also shows the many ways that artists can grab and hold attention, whether it’s through facial recognition, familiar imagery, or even a small game of “spot the 9s.” Art without an audience, especially public art, can often miss the point.