Friday, May 1, 2015

The Magic City Art Connection – and Birmingham’s Disconnect

I have spent some time on this blog over the past year extolling the good things about the city of Birmingham. I have been proud of the strides the city has taken in urban residential development, the creation of Railroad Park, bringing the Birmingham Barons back to the city, and hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama during Human Rights Week. I regret to say, however, that our city leaders have taken a huge step backwards, as evidenced by the city's treatment of the Magic City Art Connection last weekend. Birmingham has decided that it will no longer waive fees for public events that require additional services from the city such as police, fire, and sanitation.  Therefore, the Magic City Art Connection will owe the city around $12,000.

For over thirty years the Magic City Art Connection has been a source of life and vitality for the city and a wonderful celebration of the creative arts. It has been a venue for local artists, students, and others to display their talents. It has also been a place to give children hands-on experience in artistic creation with their Imagination Festival workshops.

At one of the events years ago, a school teacher was using the event to celebrate the art of poetry. He was asking passersby to write a short poem on small paper flags which were then attached to long strings and draped along the trees in the park. I’m not one to sketch, draw or paint, but jotting down a poem, I can do.  I therefore took up the young teacher’s invitation. It became an opportunity to stop, look around and take in the sights and sounds around me. After a brief time of observing the gathering in the park, I wrote a short poem. My poem was attached, as requested, to one of the banners hanging from a tree, where it caught the breeze along with many other poems.  I also jotted it down and took it home as a remembrance of the day:

"Tree-wrapping" at a past
Magic City Art Connection event
In the Park

Sitting on the roots
   of an old oak tree
In the park
Watching children
Dance and pop bubbles
Being blown by a clown --
This is the reason
For civilization.


Unwelcome Financial Changes

This year, with the city of Birmingham charging fees for the use of Linn Park, patrons coming to the Magic City Art Connection had to pay to gain admission. My grown daughter and I attended, as we had done so many times in the past when she was growing up. This time, paying $5 to get in was a bit of a downer, but seeing temporary fencing surrounding the park, a lack of people freely coming and going, and smaller numbers in attendance was an even BIGGER downer. I missed the openness, the celebration, and the free-flow of people. There were also fewer vendors on hand to provide food and refreshments. John Archibald, columnist for The Birmingham News says that the city might as well throw out the "unwelcome mat."
In his column for the Sunday edition, “City of Birmingham: It takes (more) money to waste (your) money” Archibald takes the city council to task for its exorbitant spending on personal trips around the world, but denying requested funds to enable the police department to cover extra expenses for maintaining security at civic events such as the Magic City Art Connection. “Mayor William Bell, with the tact of a SWAT team and the grace of a water buffalo,” Archibald wrote,  “earlier this year issued an edict saying the city would – ‘due to economic reasons’ -- no longer waive fees for city services at events and festivals like this weekend's Magic City Art Connection. So that festival, which has drawn people downtown for three decades, will get a city bill for at least $12,000.”

The kicker, as John Archibald states, is that the city is not being fiscally responsible as a whole. He presents a glaring comparison: “We know every time a Birmingham Council member wants to fly to Washington DC -- which is just about every week -- the city will drop $5,000 like it's hot. And that's about the same amount the city wants to charge for charity road races that bring thousands downtown and raise money for the city's most deprived people.”

I am certainly on board with what Archibald is saying. Surely the goodwill, the influx of visitors with money to spend, and the event itself would bring the kind of publicity and promotion that a vibrant city needs. If the city of Birmingham continues this penny wise and pound foolish measure of refusing to waive fees for special events, those events may follow the city council members’ lead and do some travelling themselves – to cities that are more welcoming.

Setting Up Barriers

My daughter Elaine, who is an artist in her own right, was even more dismayed by the barriers in evidence at this year’s festival. She saw “that awful fence” that surrounded the park as representative of a wider barrier – the barrier between the poor and cultural expression. “Too many people think that art is somehow above them, out of their reach and out of their comprehension. How many times do we hear,” she pointed out, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like? Easy access,” she says, “teaches children about the accessibility of art and removes elitism.” She was sad to see the city create yet another barrier between art and the people. “Five dollars (the price of admission for the day) isn’t much to us, but what about the families that rely on public assistance? These are the very people who we want to reach the most.”

From the 2014 Magic City Arts Connection
Students involved in a
2008 workshop 

Furthermore, my daughter was concerned about the impression that visitors may have. “Art fairs like this draw people from all over the country who want to show and sell their work,” she noted. “We want to give them a good impression of our city.”  One artist we talked with who works in ceramics came down from Indiana. She had a booth with many attractive items for sale. Indeed, for 32 years the Magic City Art Connection has attracted artists and artisans from far and wide, and has introduced children and adults to the many and wonderful means of artistic expression. 

Keeping the “Magic” in the Magic City

The irony is that for all of those years when Birmingham seemed to be foundering, losing its economic footing, wondering how it could keep living up to the “Magic City” moniker of its industrial heyday, it always found a way to support these special events. Now that our city is beginning to re-emerge as the up-and-coming city of the South, we are hit with this policy reversal from city hall in its refusing to grant the needed funds for community events.

Let’s hope that in the future wiser minds will prevail so that the police, fire, and sanitation departments can be adequately funded to serve special events the way they have in the past. Demonstrating to everyone that our city can find a way to promote special events like the Magic City Art Connection is one way we can continue to live up to “the Magic City” heritage. With the momentum of new and exciting developments that are making Birmingham an attractive place, let’s not nickel and dime our way back into the doldrums of the recent past by continued refusal to waive fees for beneficial public events.

Booths where artists display and sell their work


All photos are were taken from the Magic City Art Connection website and


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