A makeover for empty storefronts: Open Spaces program hopes to attract tenants with art projects

photo A woman walks past the windows of the vacant Chattanooga Bank Building. Open Spaces, a new program for the River City Co. to put art pieces inside empty window spaces, will concentrate on buildings in the 600 and 700 blocks of Market Street.
photo An empty store-front in New York features digital birds that fly away when the viewer calls the phone number on the display. River City Co. wants to use ideas like this to attract tenants to vacant properties in Chattanooga.

TO APPLYWhat: Applications are being accepted and must be sent electronically before 5 p.m. on July 2. The application form can be found at www.openspaceschattanooga.com.Who: Anyone over 18 and now residing in the United States can make an installation proposal, though the pieces cannot promote a product or public/private agenda.Judging: A panel comprised of people from Public Art Chattanooga, Association for Visual Arts, Lyndhurst, River City Company and other invested partners will choose the finalists, who will be notified by July 30. The works will be unveiled Oct. 3.

It is a commonly held belief that the best way to sell a home, especially an unoccupied one, is to stage it with furniture to give potential buyers an idea of what it could look like.

Planners at River City Co., a downtown development agency, have created a similar plan to attract businesses to empty commercial spaces along Market Street between Sixth and Eighth streets. Instead of filling the spaces with tables and chairs, however, they will use art installations that feature light and interactive elements.

Open Spaces hopes to use the talents of artists, architects, engineers, designers and other creatives to come up with ideas that will turn a blank storefront window into an art piece that will make people stop and play a video game, or dial a number on their cellphones that makes a flock of digital birds sitting on a phone wire suddenly take flight, for example. The project is being funded by a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation.

"We know that people don't like to walk by an empty building because they don't feel safe, and even if they do walk by, pretty soon they stop looking inside or even noticing it," said Paige Southard, program coordinator with River City Co.

Communications specialist Amy Donahue said the idea is to have the spaces animated 24 hours a day, preferably with some sort of light element, with the installations remaining in place for one year.

There are between 30 and 40 windows in the four properties, including the Chattanooga Bank Building and the Miller Brothers building, that are part of the program. Some of the larger installations could take up multiple windows, but most will occupy single spaces.

The projects will be divided into three tiers. The top will feature high-level interactivity in three of the larger storefronts. These will carry a budget of between $10,000 and $15,000, which covers materials and compensation. These could feature works triggered by motion sensors, touch-screens or some sort of social media interaction.

The second-tier works carry a budget of between $1,000 and $2,000 and will be placed in 17 storefronts. These could feature pedal-powered animation, projection, musical interaction and linkable social media.

The display art tier features a $400 stipend and could include original still art, lighting, repurposed materials, sculpture and digital materials.

Open Spaces is patterned after similar programs in Seattle, New York City, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Antonio. The Bird on a Wire project was done in New York City and was created by four students in New York University's interactive telecommunication program as a class project.

Ben Light and his colleagues created digital birds that were projected onto a telephone wire on a screen, which also included a phone number. When passers-by dialed the number, it caused the birds to fly around and you could hear bird noises on your phone.

"They would fly around and come to rest after about 30 seconds," Light said.

Multiple people could call in and hear the calls, though each call did not restart the flocking algorithm.

Anne Blackburn is the director of a similar program in Seattle called Storefronts. It was founded in 2010 and has been used in five Seattle-area neighborhoods and two nearby cities. In addition to the art or show installations similar to the Open Spaces concept, it also does Creative Enterprise Popups in which a temporary business, such as a gallery or boutique, is placed into one of the empty spaces. Both efforts have proven successful, she says.

"It does work. We've gotten a good amount of feedback from both, and it does a pretty good job of activating the streetscapes, reducing crime and bringing attention, and renters, to the spaces.

"The popup effort, to our surprise, has actually resulted in some of the popups taking over the lease and staying put."

She says the program "operates in a unusual intersection of art, small business and real estate."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.