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by Jeff Sykes

Elsewhere’s South Elm Projects reimagine streetscapes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

For more than a decade now, George Scheer and his band of visionaries have been exploring the collection of odds and ends his grandmother amassed in a three-story commercial building along South Elm Street in the heart of downtown Greensboro.

Scheer founded Elsewhere along with Stephanie Sherman back in 2003 with the intent of creating a living art museum out of an overabundance of consumer items his grandmother, Sylvia Gray, collected during a 30-year period of running a general thrift store located at 606 South Elm Street.

Inside Elsewhere, some of the most creative minds in Greensboro make art by arranging layers of material goods in ways unimagined. They create the possible out of things that already exist.

Members of Elsewhere bring the 600 block of South Elm Street alive during the warmer months, with storefront window theater in the evenings. Artists in rope swings invite passersby into the museum during the day, where visitors absorb the eclectic front desk and abundant toy bin as they become part of Elsewhere.

The museum’s success couldn’t have been predicted a decade ago. That it has thrived is both a testament to the innovation of its collaborators and the thirst for the creative that lives in Greensboro.

Greensboro’s downtown scene continues to evolve as development creeps across the railroad tracks and makes its way down South Elm toward Lee Street. Many years of sweat equity and financial investment are coming together as more businesses open and aging storefronts are remodeled, it seems, with each passing week.

Before South Elm is solidified as an organically redeveloped section of the city, however, Elsewhere hopes to take its philosophy of repurposing available resources beyond the walls of the museum itself. By completing an artscape project that involves four under-used public spaces, the South Elm Projects hope to become the mortar that holds together the future of a vibrant cultural district.

“I would say that I am continually surprised both with the collection as we explore it and the ideas the collection is able to generate,” Scheer said when asked how Elsewhere has exceeded his expectation over the last 12 years. Coupled with the depth of engagement the museum has enjoyed with the community, in addition to the ways social art and engagement has grown nationally, Scheer said Elsewhere keeps him surprised and interested day after day.

The goal from the start has been to prevent the typical cycle of gentrification that occurs when artists move in to underdeveloped urban areas. By changing the nature of the neighborhood with their passion and creativity to the point that residential and commercial growth follows, artists often become priced out of the very vibrant community their need for a workspace brought about.

“We knew we needed to be fully integrated into the neighborhood so that as we grew we could be an indispensible part of the community,” Scheer said. “The rapid growth of South End has catalyzed the need for a strong and creative cultural anchor in the center of South Elm Street.”

That’s how the South Elm Projects were born. By using collaborative art to activate four nondescript alleyways and greenspaces in the core of the neighborhood, the South Elm Projects will solidify the economic development taking place, while at the same time increasing walkability, social connections and public engagement.

“We want to take our years of experience and ask how to take our core values outside,” Scheer said. “Reuse, repurpose, using what’s at hand “” how can we apply those to the new development landscape?” Elsewhere won a competitive grant this summer that will help fund the project. ArtPlace America announced in June that Elsewhere was one of 55 grantees selected from 1,270 applicants. The grant gives Elsewhere $200,000 to fund the South Elm Projects and “activate four alleyways and green spaces in the vibrant, naturally occurring cultural district of its South Elm neighborhood in downtown Greensboro.”

ArtPlace America awards about $14 million a year to four percent of its applicants. It is part of a broader placemaking movement that connects cultural vitality and grassroots art with economic development.

“Our niche in that is artscaping,” Scheer said. “How does that become a place for more livable, more lively communities where art is integrated into the everyday. It’s seeing the beauty of what is already there.”

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The undertaking brought about the need for a new staff member at Elsewhere to manage the project. Anna Luisa Daigneault was hired in August as South Elm Projects coordinator, shortly after the grant application, written by Scheer and Elsewhere’s production coordinator, Jennie Carlisle, was approved.

Daigneault said the grant gives Elsewhere national and international exposure for placemaking, while also extending the museum’s philosophy of creative play and innovation into the more immediate neighborhood. Part of her job is to work with business and property owners in the South End area to build awareness of the project and give them opportunities to take part in the planning process.

Her primary job is to manage the logistics of the project’s timeline. The nomination process just ended, Daigneault said, with dozens of curators, museum directors and leaders of arts organizations submitting more than 150 nominations. The next phase is an open call for portfolios, which begins this week and ends Dec. 13.

Daigneault said the project received international attention, with nominations coming for artists from Spain and Brazil. The open call for portfolios will give the project the widest possible spectrum to choose from.

The South Elm Projects will consist of four types of projects: greenscaping, light installations, media based art, and participatory programming/socially engaged artworks.

Greenscaping, a growing field in the art world, involves creating art with living plants. Light installations that help illuminate the four project areas, coupled with greenscaping, could give an immediate aesthetic boost. Media based art is a broad category that includes sculpture, murals and projections. Participatory programming involves using the project spaces for things like spoken word and other live events.

The project website lists more than 30 partners and collaborators. Some of Elsewhere’s immediate neighbors are featured on the list, includ ing Andy Zimmerman’s properties just behind the museum. The Forge, a recently opened makerspace on Lewis Street, shares an alleyway and greenspace with Elsewhere.

Project managers hope members of The Forge collaborate on greenscaping and lighting the area.

“They bring the creativity and engineering aspect to South End,” Daigneault said. “They have really talented people working there.”

Places like Gibb’s Hundred Brewing, Table 16 and Mellow Mushroom make the area a destination spot.

A new bakery, Crawford’s Creations, is opening next to Elsewhere soon.

“It makes landmarks,” Daigneault of the increased number of destinations. “Walkability is one of the main things we’d like to improve by connecting the spaces and giving people a reason to get out and walk around.”

Both Daigneault and Scheer said that South Elm Projects are part of a larger effort to solidify South Elm Street’s future.

“We hope to enhance Greensboro’s visual appeal. That’s a long process and we’re not the only one’s working on that,” Daigneault said.

Scheer said that invited artists will convene in April to submit proposals after having visited the neighbor hood. The approach was different, he said, but fit with their vision of authentic projects that enhance what’s in place. He hopes for 20 projects in the first year, which will be unveiled with First Friday events depending on the artists and their timelines.

“Most development is bulldoze, level and flatten. They imagine what they want there as opposed to what is there,” Scheer said. “Before our beautiful, historic downtown changes, we need to utilize what is here and realize that what is here has brought us to where we are.” !

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