Plein air artists participating in Gadsden’s Southeastern Plein Air Invitational may be serenaded by a fiddle.

Gadsden, Alabama, population 37,000, hosts a successful plein air event each spring that culminates in an exhibition in the Gadsden Museum of Art. Their event is another model showing how a community — like yours — can foster the arts. So what made the Southeastern Plein Air Invitational successful?

The idea came from a volunteer at the museum, Dr. Evelyn Brannon. The museum staff embraced it, city hall endorsed it (the museum is an arm of the city), and the Chamber of Commerce got behind it. The museum found able volunteers to help with it, and the community loved the event, from the first year it was held. “We felt at the time we began this that we were the first in the Southeast and the first in Alabama to have a festival inviting artists into town to paint all week and then have an opening for them and show their work for some time afterward,” says Elaine Campbell, exhibit coordinator at the Gadsden Museum of Art. “It was good for the museum, because it gave us exposure that we would not get otherwise. And artists were successful in selling their work. The whole community really embraced it. The city fathers are very much into us doing anything that promotes the city — they really like us bringing art into the city and bringing people in.”

A typical view in the area around Gadsden, Alabama

The city’s commitment to plein air painting is not limited to one event. This past weekend, the museum sponsored a smaller paint-out for anyone interested in participating. There was no fee, and the museum supplied breakfast and a potluck dinner. In the spring event, the museum invites 15 artists to stay the week, and the whole town gets involved. Past artists who have participated in the Gadsden event include Becky Joy and John Guernsey. The museum staff plots out locations for each day.

“We pick places so that artists are all within a mile of each other so people can go there and walk around and see them,” explains Campbell. “We have something called the Blue Umbrella where people can stop by and find out where the painters will be working. Each day they move to a new place.” The painting spots range from a scenic waterfall, to the river that flows through town, to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the downtown area, a local dairy, a vineyard, and the views from a golf course. “We are a community that was built on smokestacks,” says Campbell. “We had a lot of heavy industry in the past, including steel plants and Goodyear, so we have a really strong work ethic and a utilitarian value system. And we are now appreciating the arts more. We may not be a big city, but we have a lot of good things that we enjoy.”

The dramatic Noccalula Falls are in Gadsden, ready to be painted.

Why does Campbell think the event is so successful? She is quick to credit the hardworking staff of the museum and the energy and commitment of the volunteers, and she also points out how supportive the movers and shakers of the town have been. And then there are the residents.

“They like seeing local things depicted,” Campbell says. “Seeing local things brought to life by plein air artists makes it doubly successful. They like seeing the artists ply their trade and they like seeing their city in all its beauty. We take for granted our local surroundings. The artist’s eye makes you consider things that we take for granted or might not be aware of.” The townspeople show their appreciation in many ways, including bringing cookies and Kool-Aid out to the artists working in the streets and public spaces. “In the historic district, residents will have four to six artists on their porches for lunch,” says Campbell. “They love to do it.”

One artist at last year’s event chose to paint the storefronts in downtown Gadsden.

The 2014 spring invitational at Gadsden will be held from April 6 through 11, with the paintings on display through May 2 at the museum.

Campbell boiled down her advice for others planning plein air events in medium-sized to small towns into two pithy sentences. “Plan it really well — it takes about a year to put one on,” she says. “And have a good cadre of volunteers to help implement it.”



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