For a decade, a handful of volunteers worked to convince the Leesburg Town Council of the value of investing in public art.
Council members have resisted earmarking taxpayer money for such projects. But dedicated members of the local arts community, undeterred, continued to get projects off the ground, at their own expense, with the hope of getting buy-in from town leadership eventually.
“I think the desire has always been there,” said architect Tom O’Neil, chairman of the town’s Committee on Public Art. “But getting [projects] out in front of them makes a difference.”
And that is exactly what members of COPA and Friends of Leesburg Public Art, a nonprofit formed in 2012 in part to host the Leesburg Arts Festival, have done.
Art projects now dot the downtown, including a mural inside the Town Hall parking garage, a sculpture garden at Raflo Park, and the new LOVEworks sculpture that will be installed along the W&OD Trail near Crescent Place in May.
FOLPA has also hosted pop-up art shows in addition to the annual downtown art festival, and is always working toward its next event or creative idea.
“With the formation of FOLPA several years ago, we tried to take it into our own hands,” said O’Neil, also a FOLPA board member. “Getting direct funding from the town was not going to happen, at least not until we show them it could be a difference maker in attracting people downtown. Then it could be easier to get them on board.”
The projects and events that have gotten off the ground so far have been attributed to FOLPA’s fundraising efforts and grants, and donations from many community partners. Area businesses have donated paint and supplies, artists and students have contributed for little to no pay, and passion has sustained the entire operation.
“I think what you’ve noticed in the last year is the fact that we’ve gotten these things done,” FOLPA President Suzanne Stipek said. “They’re small scale, pretty much non-controversial and people are saying ‘wow this is neat. We need more of this.’ I think as the town sees it helping, then the more we’ll hopefully see some in capital budgets.”
Just last week, the Town Council, albeit narrowly, approved a new mural project at its Liberty Street parking lot. In December, Sagetopia LLC, a graphic design studio located on Liberty Street, approached COPA for permission to paint a mural on the side of a town-owned building at the parking lot. The one-story, white cinderblock building is used as a support facility for the Department of Public Works and Capital Projects.
Commissioners approved the mural design at their February meeting. But the mural will not receive any public funds. The town’s lone role will be to power-wash and touch-up the wall to prepare it to be painted.
Another mural on the bridge on South King Street near the W&OD Trail is in the planning stages.
A mural on the outside of the town’s parking garage along Loudoun Street also remains a possibility. That project is in limbo while the town considers implementing a master plan for the Town Hall property.
But murals are not enough, Stipek stressed.
“Just putting up a mural is not going to bring arts into the community. You have to really bring the community into the planning. They need to be invested in what you’re doing to make it work,” she said.
The two arts bodies are collaborating on a master plan to identify public art opportunities throughout Leesburg.
“The idea was to reach beyond just the downtown,” O’Neil said.
Although nothing on either of these projects is finalized, two potential capital projects that could see some artistic flare is the repainting of the water tank on the Inova Loudoun Medical Campus – Leesburg and the retaining walls at the Leesburg Bypass/Edwards Ferry Road interchange.
The two arts groups are also busy planning events to highlight and foster the local art scene. In addition to its fifth annual downtown arts festival in September, they are planning an arts festival in the Village at Leesburg for June 3-4 and an inaugural Arts in the Alley Festival on July 29, to bring life to the alleyway between the Town Hall parking garage and King Street businesses.
“We’re billing it more like a street fair,” Stipek said of the daylong festival. “Lots of performing artists, visual artists and craftspeople. … We’re looking for whatever we can find.”
Although the town does not dedicate money to public art projects, it does try to help them along, according to the town’s senior engineer Anne Geiger, who also serves as the COPA liaison. She said the town staff has helped secure permits for art projects, prepared the spaces for the works, and helped negotiate with developers to clear the way for the projects.
For example, Crescent Place developer Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel worked with the town to make the space available and get the spaces ready for both the LOVEworks sculpture and the Raflo Park sculpture garden, which sits across the street from the development.
With the cadre of dedicated volunteers, artists and art lovers, the public arts community is hoping to see the Town Council back their efforts with financial support in the coming years.
“I see a momentum,” FOLPA board member and COPA member Donna Torraca said of the public art movement in Leesburg. “I’m hoping as the council sees there’s an interest and people are excited about it they’ll be even more supportive.”
Mayor Kelly Burk, a longtime supporter of public arts, said she cannot speak for all Town Council members but she thinks the time is coming for them to decide whether they want to set aside funds to support the arts.
“What these groups have done is phenomenal. … And at some point people will have to decide whether we want to continue doing it this way or whether we want the town to financially support the public arts,” she said, adding that she is also working with foundations to secure more private funding.
The mayor encouraged people to stroll around downtown and attend the upcoming events to take in the displays of local creativity.
“There’s a movement and we should help support it,” she said. “Public art is integral to a strong, vibrant community where people want to be.”