When Athens City Hall was built in 1904, the vaults included on each floor of the structure doubtless were intended to restrict access to important municipal records and other instruments of local governance.
In more recent years, though, at least one of the vaults spread throughout the building has restricted access to another kind of valuable community resource.
Located along part of one wall of what is now a conference room in the Athens-Clarke County mayor’s office, a smallish walk-in vault has — until recently, anyway — hidden a half-dozen pieces of art that, in one way or another, mark pieces of Athens’ history. For a varying number of years, the artworks have been sitting in the vault amid large volumes of handwritten property records (some with the word “Colored” on their spines), shelves of office supplies and other assorted items.
“Hidden,” though, may be too strong a word for what, without the recent work of the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission, might well have represented a loss to the community’s cultural legacy.
People knew the artworks were there. In fact, someone told the cultural affairs group what they’d find in the mayor’s vault, according to ACAC chair Marilyn Wolf-Ragatz.
It’s just that nobody thought very much about them. Until, that is, the cultural commission, an 11-member body appointed by the mayor and Athens-Clarke County commissioners in connection with the county’s developing public art program, began an effort to locate art hidden away in various local government buildings.
The discovery — or, perhaps more accurately, the rediscovery — of the art in the City Hall vault has prompted ACAC, along with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, to establish an ongoing exhibition titled “Art @ the Chamber: Out of the Vault.”
One of the pieces from the vault, a painting by local artist Philip Juras, recently went on display in the lobby of the Chamber office in downtown Athens. The unveiling ceremony included comments from Juras and from Dorinda Dallmeyer, director of the environmental ethics certificate program at the University of Georgia, whose book on naturalist William Bartram was illustrated by Juras.
Juras’ work, “Rock and Shoals Flatrock,” depicts a section of the Rock and Shoals area of east Athens. It will be on display at the Chamber office, 246 W. Hancock Ave., downtown Athens, for six months, at which time another one of the pieces from the vault will go on display. Following their display at the Chamber, each of the pieces will be returned to City Hall, where they will be placed on permanent public display.
While there may remain some questions about other pieces of art rediscovered in the City Hall vault, the provenance of Juras’ painting is well known. Painted in 2001, it was purchased by then-Mayor Heidi Davison, who served in that office from 2003 until 2011, with money from a discretionary fund attached to the mayor’s office. Information on the purchase price wasn’t immediately available, but Juras joked at the recent unveiling that, given the money he got for the painting, he considered it “a service to the community.”
Other pieces in the City Hall vault include an abstract painting acquired during former Mayor Gwen O’Looney’s time in office, a framed quilt, and drawings of historic structures in Athens done some time ago by local high school students.
The Athens Cultural Affairs Commission’s search of government buildings has turned up some other pieces, and the group is also interested in finding out what sorts of artwork might be stored or displayed in private structures, as well, ACAC member Samanta Carvalho said at the recent unveiling of Juras’ painting.
“One of the privileges of living in Athens is taking advantage of its vast range of artistic talent, and the Athens Chamber is honored to be hosting these exhibits of publicly owned artworks that have been out of public view for a while,” Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge said in remarks prepared for the unveiling of the inaugural “Art @ the Chamber: Out of the Vault” exhibition.