Backers say the plan is a recipe for tourism success: Bring top artists to Atlantic City and display their work in a conspicuous location close to the Boardwalk.
Crowds are sure to come, they say. The city’s reputation is bound to improve.
It’s a beguiling proposition. But the Artlantic proposal to create a series of art parks in the city isn’t the first time local officials have tried this approach.
Atlantic City tried the same thing more than 80 years ago. In 1929, it hosted an exhibit of works by Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper and 64 other top American artists. Promoters of the five-month event at Boardwalk Hall dreamed of capitalizing on the show and earning the brash and bustling resort a reputation as “the American Luxembourg.”
The First Municipal Exhibition of American Art didn’t meet that lofty promise. But the resort’s interest in using art to draw visitors and change how they view the city has been a strategy employed by town fathers and merchants again and again since the first great hotels rose along the beachfront.
Never, though, has the city seen anything like today’s concerted effort to spark an arts-related tourism boom. From Artlantic’s multimillion-dollar, five-year plan to convert vacant lots into public art parks to an effort to create an arts district in the Ducktown neighborhood, those planning Atlantic City’s future are betting heavily on the arts’ ability to draw visitors.
“It really starts with the visitor experience,” said Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, the nonprofit group charged with promoting Atlantic City that is behind the art parks project. “As we developed the marketing plan, it became a recommendation we use art. Travelers value art and cultural experiences. It’s a large motivator for travel. So this is filling a niche that is missing.”
Performing and visual arts have always had a place in Atlantic City. In the early decades of the 20th century, the city was a popular tryout town for Broadway-bound plays. Set designers and artists settled here and had an impact on the look of the city, said Tony Kutschera, one of the founders of the Atlantic City Historical Museum.
When they weren’t painting sets and backdrops, the artists found work painting murals and other artwork for the city’s grand hotels.
“There were components of art in all the dining rooms of all the big hotels. Some had murals, some had painted ceilings, some had statues here and there,” said Kutschera, of Ocean City. The artwork might not have been groundbreaking, but it did dress up the seaside hotels and add a general impression of elegance to the city.
As Atlantic City grew to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, some recognized art as a way to earn a dollar or draw a crowd.
“They were always looking for a gimmick to get people to come down, and art was part of that mix,” Kutschera said.
Heinz Pier off the Boardwalk was the well-known home of “Custer’s Last Rally,” a huge painting depicting the final moments of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. The 11-foot-by-20-foot piece had been meticulously researched and painted by John Mulvany. It was a proven tourist magnet, having toured the country to appreciative audiences before finding a home among the 150 or so paintings in the pier’s art salon, according to a biography of entrepreneur H.J. Heinz.
Boardwalk strollers could also view the elaborate confections created by the city’s troupe of sand sculptors. Rail birds — tourists who lined the Boardwalk rail to watch the works in progress — would toss coins to the artists. The work was lucrative. One artist, Louis Levin, also did caricatures and was soon able to open three locations on the Boardwalk where he paid other artists to sketch visitors, Kutschera said.
Sand sculptors began mixing plaster of Paris into the sand to make their creations more permanent. This caused problems, and the city banned the popular beach artists.
“The 1944 hurricane came and washed it all away. Then the city got in quickly and put a stop to that,” Kutschera said. Now, sand artists are only rare visitors to the city, creating their pieces at special shows and events.
The late 1950s saw the start of the annual Boardwalk Art Show in Atlantic City. In its heyday, the show drew artists from all over the East Coast and thousands of visitors from New York, Pennsylvania and surrounding states on Father’s Day weekend, said Herb Stern, of Longport, a former organizer of the event.
“People got to know the show. People who used to come to Atlantic City would set that date, and the show thrived,” he said. The show was so successful that organizers could offer a trip to Europe as the award for the art contest’s grand prize winner, said Cindy Mason Purdie, administrator of the Atlantic County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs. In 1964, Stern met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, after learning that the former British King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, were spotted on the Boardwalk looking at the art.
The show ran for about 30 years, ending in the 1980s when crowds visiting the resort proved unwilling to leave the casinos to shop at the Boardwalk show and artists found a visit to Atlantic City had become too expensive to make participating worth their while.
Visitors to the last few art shows likely encountered another attempt by the city to promote its arts image. In the late 1970s, a modern sculpture was erected at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway at the entrance to the city. Built of wood, the piece was inspired by the city’s Boardwalk, but not everybody appreciated the connection.
“It was immediately named by the people in the city ‘The Corn Crib,’” Purdie said, because it resembled the farm building. “There was never any effort to light it properly or do anything with it, so it didn’t get the appreciation that it deserved.” The sculpture was damaged in a storm and was dismantled instead of being repaired, she said.
But the city did not abandon arts completely during the casino era.
Legislation initially required casinos to set aside 1 percent of total construction costs for arts-related projects.
“It was very broad. They could do direct art, like paintings or sculpture, but then it ended up they could use it for architectural enhancement or landscaping, so it got watered down and eventually it went away,” said Stern, who had also served on the city Fine Arts Commission, which was responsible for overseeing how the set-aside funds were spent. While the projects were not as focused on art as originally intended, Stern still thinks the set-aside was worthwhile.
“(The casinos) were forced to enhance the outside of their buildings, which is something they wouldn’t have done if they didn’t have to. I’m sure it enhanced the appearance of casinos like the Taj Mahal,” he said.
Visitors leaving the casinos and strolling on the north end of the Boardwalk also came to appreciate the Atlantic City Arts Center, located, along with the Atlantic City Historical Museum, on Garden Pier. At its peak, the center — which does not charge admission and features exhibits by area artists — attracted close to 40,000 visitors annually, Purdie said.
“It was truly amazing the number of people, particularly visitors, who went there,” she said.
In recent years, the center had been closed due to storm damage to Garden Pier. Repairs were made, and the center reopened in August but closed again due to damage suffered during Hurricane Sandy, said Sheila Harvey, special events coordinator for Atlantic City who also oversees operations at the arts center.
“We are like a little treasure that’s hidden for everyone,” Harvey said. “When people come in, they are surprised by the exhibits we have here.”
From 2001 to 2006, the center was not the only place to find art on the Boardwalk. The city erected state-themed giant fiberglass sculptures at certain street ends along the Boardwalk. The “Boardwalk Icons,” intended to add whimsy to a Boardwalk stroll, soon became the subject of political bickering. The project was eventually removed after the sculptures were damaged by the elements and vandalism.
While there’s a chance the proposed art parks, too, might eventually turn into neglected eyesores, most in the arts community say the current climate and plans represent the best chance ever for the arts to have a significant impact on Atlantic City’s future as a tourism hotspot.
“In the art world, it’s a lot of the right time and the right place, the stars align and things happen,” Purdie said.
The city has already built momentum with its series of successful public entertainment events, including a variety of concerts in Kennedy Plaza in front of Boardwalk Hall. The creation of the arts district includes plans to revitalize Dante Hall as a performance space and the location of an art gallery operated by the Noyes Museum near The Walk. An offshoot of the art parks plan includes getting local artists involved in other art projects in the city.
And, supporters say, promoting the arts in Atlantic City is one of the few tourism initiatives that benefits residents as much as visitors.
“There is a lot of positive energy and support,” said Cynthia Lambert, executive director of the South Jersey Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents about 120 area organizations and artists. “There are so many young artists excited to be working on this.”
The Alliance’s Cartmell said visitors may not currently associate the arts with the resort. Creating a fun, vibrant and artsy atmosphere in the city will not only combat existing negative images of Atlantic City, it will also get people talking. If that occurs, spending $8 million over five years on the art park projects would be a bargain, she said.
“These are the types of projects that draw press and draw social media,” Cartmell said. Five years of news reports, tweets and Facebook postings from people urging friends to check out what’s happening in the city would be the kind of promotion worth many times what the Alliance is spending on the project, she said.
“We want to get people to reassess what they think about Atlantic City,” she said. “So we are measuring and we will track if this has any kind of an impact. There are so many focal points that Atlantic City can take advantage of. There are always multiple legs on a stool. The arts are important. It is not the only leg, but it is one of those legs.”
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