It’s a picture-perfect Tuesday afternoon in Athens, Georgia. Leaves have begun to depart from trees and drift to the ground. The sun shines down, cutting through the brisk October air. The Memorial Park Playground is abuzz with activity. Joggers and cyclists pass by, making their way along the waterline. Dogs play fetch with owners. Couples sit together on benches. And there, in the warm, golden light stands Mike with his grandson Oliver, seated atop a colorful bulldog statue painted with uplifting words and phrases like “love” and “kindness matters.” The two are spending some quality time together in the park, and whether they realize it or not, public art is at the forefront of that shared experience.
Have you ever wondered where all the bulldog statues throughout the Athens area originated from? They adorn dozens of street corners and greet guests at storefronts all over town. People seek out specific dogs to decorate their Instagram feed and selfie collection, like the “Welcome to Athens” dog near Creature Comforts. The larger-than-life public art display has become a staple in the local community and can be found in some capacity nearly everywhere you go.
The Mastermind: Linda Ford
“I promise it’s not normally like this,” Linda Ford expressed as she hopped up to answer the phone for the second time, addressing the caller on the other end with a cheery greeting.
Although the phones rang constantly, the Athens Downtown Development Authority office stood practically empty on a Monday afternoon as Ford juggled responsibilities typically delegated to a multitude of employees, all of whom happened to be on break or off work at the same time.
“I am certainly the last person in the world to do any kind of art,” she said as she sat back down at the large table. The irony of this statement is undeniable considering the major role Ford has played in the Athens, Georgia, art community over the past 15 years.
Credit for the bulldog statues ultimately belongs to Ford. What started as a small fundraiser by the Athens-Oconee Junior Woman’s Club in 2002 has now spiraled into a major tourist attraction that generated international publicity for the Classic City. Ford was quick to tell me about the news coverage of the bulldogs all the way in China when the project began and the story published by the SEC last month. Ford also told me that three dogs were sold just last week. Even after all these years, the project show no signs of slowing down and the impact continue to spread.
Inspiration for the artistic venture was drawn from other similar charity projects like “Cow Parade” in New York City and Chicago. The main idea was to find local artists to paint bulldog statues that could later be auctioned off to generate money for AIDS relief in Athens. The original goal was to sell one dozen dogs, but that was exceeded tremendously when nearly 50 statues were auctioned to raise a combined total of approximately $25,000 in 2010.
“People won’t always go in a museum,” Ford said, “but this brings the art to them.”
Her vision was simple: make art accessible to everyone. The impact, however, extends far beyond the scope of fiber-glass bulldogs in Athens, Georgia, as public art continues to make a difference in communities worldwide.
The Expert: Marilyn Wolf-Ragatz
“Art has an important place in a community to help it thrive,” Marilyn Wolf-Ragatz said from across the table between sips of iced coffee. As we sat on the outdoor patio of a popular Athens coffee shop, Wolf-Ragatz couldn’t help but critique the landscaping and exterior aesthetics that surrounded us. “How excited are you about this rust?” she joked as she offered suggestions on how to beautify the location.
As an art educator of over 30 years and an artist herself, Wolf-Ragatz has the knowledge and background to support her claims. She currently presides as the chair of the Athens Cultural Affairs commission, an organization established to advise local government on all matters related to public art. Specifically, the commission is in place to “to foster the development and enjoyment of performing, visual, cultural and other arts in the Athens-Clarke County community.”
Wolf-Ragatz’s passion for beauty is what led her to join the original public-art task-force during its establishment in 2010 and later be appointed to her current position alongside nine others. Her work with the commission has been varied over the last seven years. From curating an extensive art collection for the Classic Center downtown to beautifying local parks and bus stops, Wolf-Ragatz has had a hand in it all. One thing remains the same, the opinions of the general public are taken into consideration, which to Wolf-Ragatz is the whole point of public art, getting the community involved and excited about making their city beautiful.
While the Commission guides the selection of potential public art installation and acquisition, “the public makes the final selection,” Wolf-Ragatz said.
Like Ford, Wolf-Ragatz understands the value of making art accessible to all people. Her “passion” is to help people understand the value and importance of art “and to bring that art to the community for everyone.”