The Polaris Building is the largest building in downtown Fairbanks. It is an empty hotel that has stood vacant for more than a decade; its size makes the vacancy all the more apparent. In spring of 2011, Alaska Design Forum took artistic ownership and converted it into an active urban canvas. A banner was placed atop the building that stated: “Looking for Love Again.” The banner was tied to an interactive installation at the base of the building with space to write – in chalk – about the buildings future. The public art exhibit sparked renewed interest in the building and garnered statewide media attention. It was art with a purpose and it illustrated the challenge of filling vacant spaces in the downtown core.
By this September, a series of much smaller vacant spaces – and ones that are available to rent in downtown Fairbanks – will have a brand new look. The Window Project is the second public art project in the multi-year initiative titled Art in the Heart, a project of the Downtown Association of Fairbanks. The Windows Project follows on the heels of last year’s popular Paint the Pipes project, which saw thirteen steam pipes transformed from nondescript municipal infrastructure to engaging public art.
The Window Project will activate vacant spaces in downtown Fairbanks through the sudden appearance of public art. Empty office and retail spaces that have long stood vacant in the downtown area blend into the background and prove difficult to fill with new tenants. Vacancies lower a building’s cap rate, drive down valuations and make it harder to fund capital or even maintenance activities. The long absence of a business makes it hard for potential tenants to imagine productive uses for the space, and even harder for landlords or property owners to present the opportunity in a new light. Public art will invite people to enjoy public art while imaging – and perhaps implementing – different uses and possibilities for these spaces. The Downtown Association is looking for artists to submit their digital artwork by July 31.
Digital artwork will be printed on colorful vinyl wraps and plastered across the ground floor exterior windows of approximately a dozen vacant spaces. One artist will be assigned to illustrate the windows of each vacant property or space. All artwork will be centered on the theme of EDGE, a word that can be both abstract and literal with multiple definitions. The project is an opportunity for individual Alaskans – as well as Alaska businesses – to help enact economic and social change at the local level. “This has a social impact, if you accept the premise that a vibrant downtown is good for a community,” says David van den Berg, Executive Director of the Downtown Association of Fairbanks. “Public art gives residents a reason to go downtown, changes perceptions, and demonstrates investment.”
Studies in the U.S. and Europe have highlighted the importance of public art as a way to revitalize an urban center. Vacant space projects have been utilized successfully in other cities across the U.S. including Norwalk, CT; Philadelphia, PA; and Indianapolis, IN. Filling vacant spaces with artwork is a proven way to revitalize a downtown core.
Downtown Fairbanks encompasses 89 blocks of commercial, retail and public space. Within these boundaries are the daily activities, institutions, and critical functions for economic, cultural and civic engagement in the Interior. The courthouse, borough and city administration are just a few blocks from beautiful parks and plazas, a world-class visitor’s center, major banks, and the site at which the city’s first settler docked his steamboat. Downtown is home for 10,000+ people in Fairbanks, and is the location of choice for over 100 businesses according to Downtown Prospector, an online vacant space database to supplement The Window Project.
The Downtown Association of Fairbanks has already begun executing this project on the streets and windows of downtown Fairbanks, continuing a thirty year history of bringing life and energy to downtown. This project is an integral strategy in Fairbanks’ approach to turning vacant spaces into vibrant places and will serve the public demand for art in the heart of the community.
Jeremia Schrock is the Communication Coordinator for the Downtown Association of Fairbanks.