Drive down most any New Orleans neighborhood, and chances are you’ll spot a utility box decorated with colorful portraits of local musicians, flowers, or nature scenes. These bright spots of local art owe their existence to Community Visions Unlimited.
For many years, Jeannie P. Tidy worked to help improve neighborhoods around New Orleans. She cataloged and photographed blighted houses around her own home, then started a letter writing campaign to connect property owners with new potential buyers. She also spearheaded efforts to create community gardens around the city. With this work, Tidy inspired other neighbors to create a barn raising atmosphere and make their neighborhoods better.
In the months following Hurricane Katrina, Tidy noticed graffiti covering a lot of utility boxes around the neighborhoods. She proposed the idea of hiring local artists to paint designs on the boxes. This plan would offer local artists some work, as well as liven up the neutral grounds. This idea kicked off the Art Box Project from Community Visions Unlimited (CVU).
To design a box, Tidy visits local neighborhood associations, gives a presentation to interested ones, and encourages them to choose the type of artwork they want. She then sends a request for proposal to the CVU’s community of over 80 artists, who provide a rendering of their take on the design. The committees then choose a rendering. To keep the process fair, the committee does not know the name of the artist until the work begins, choosing the works on design alone.
As Tidy explains, every neighborhood, and each individual artist, brings their own style to the utility box designs. Lakeview, for instance, favors camouflage boxes that blend into the view of the surrounding street, creating a sort of trompe l’oriel effect. In Gentilly, the boxes tend to portray local flora and fauna, while Mid-City boxes are more eclectic. Boxes near the hospitals often relate to medicine, Tulane, or LSU (with one notable box that features baby tigers wearing stethoscopes). Around the downtown neighborhoods, many boxes feature portraits of local musicians.
Artists who paint the boxes often appreciate the chance to share their work on websites and social media, and several have received commission work thanks to their partnership with CVU.
As Tidy explains, when neighborhoods participate in the creation process, they tend to become protective of the boxes. If one does get tagged, the CVU team is often able to remove any graffiti right away, thanks to the high-quality paint they provide the artists. On an interesting note, over the course of 12 years and some 300 boxes, the painted ones have only gotten tagged a handful of times.
In fact, local AT&T boxes are now getting painted by CVU artists as well. It saves the company money because they don’t have to paint over graffiti constantly. In addition, the CVU team always cleans the area around boxes before working on them, and they generally accumulate less litter once complete.
Sometimes neighborhoods do fundraising to help offset the cost of the boxes. This may mean collecting donations from neighbors or holding a bake sale, for instance. When CVU receives grant money, they tend to reserve it for areas that may not be able to pay for the boxes out of pocket. Artists get paid a stipend and provided all materials at no cost.
In addition, the CVU team hosts a yearly mini box auction. Artists create miniature versions of the bigger boxes in MDF board. The mini boxes get auctioned off to help raise funds for the program.
In spite of their warm reception, the CVU team is facing some challenges in their ability to continue painting new boxes. The city now charges the organization $50 to paint a box, and they require CVU to obtain a permit from Public Works, which can delay the start time considerably. While the CVU team normally completes four to five boxes a month when the weather is pleasant, their rate has slowed due to the new requirements. The CVU team would like to see the ordinance revoked so that they can continue working as before.
Tidy remains positive that the boxes are an important part of rebuilding neighborhoods. “Beauty shared is beauty multiplied. It’s amazing how the art will uplift the spirits of the people who live there,” said Tidy. By highlighting local musicians, artists, and neighborhoods, the utility box project enhances New Orleans culture.
At this time, Community Visions Unlimited welcomes volunteers and donations. In particular, they are seeking volunteers to assist with their social media presence, as well as people with event planning experience who can help assemble a fundraising event.