The business community comes together to support the arts in downtown Fresno
This story is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Technical Assistance grant supporting a partnership between Springboard for the Arts and the International Downtown Association.
Public art and large-scale mural projects are often spearheaded by nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations, government organizations, or by artists and gallery owners. These different groups frequently have visions for the public art that are closely aligned, and will work together to see their shared visions come to life.
But the business community isn’t always part of the first wave on board. Business owners – specifically, property owners – might allow a group to paint a mural on their buildings, but they’re not necessarily seeking them out or taking a proactive role in making such an effort a reality. As public art starts popping up and making a noticeable difference in the neighborhood – through beautification, creative placemaking, community engagement, and increased economic and development investment – then business owners might become more engaged, even enthusiastic, about it. But, arguably, not often before then.
The story of downtown Fresno’s public art is a little bit different.
“I know that cities all over the country are doing amazing art projects, but what makes Fresno special is that we are doing this on our own,” says Gretchen Moore, Vice President of the Downtown Fresno Partnership and Executive Director of the Downtown Fresno Foundation.
She continues, “The thing people need to understand about Fresno is that we don’t have support from big foundations or major corporations dumping money into the arts here – not the way that other cities do. So everything we do is the result of sheer will and determination. We may not have funding for formal programs, but we do have a deep appreciation for art and beauty. Which means that including artwork into our development projects happens pretty organically.”
It is impossible to speak about Fresno’s vibrant public art scene without speaking about artist and developer Reza Assemi.
Assemi is a member of the prominent Assemi family, developers who have done projects all over Fresno. Assemi has a deep appreciation for art and has made it a priority to include public art – murals and sculptures – at all of his downtown apartment buildings in what is now known as the Mural District.
Assemi is unflappably humble about his crucial role in fostering Fresno’s public art scene and shepherding Fresno’s creative community into that critical mass.
“My first project was in 2000,” he says. “It was an old Red Cross building where I wanted to live, work, and be able to show publicly. Those are basically the three problems every artist has: being able to live, work, and have a venue to show.”
This first project was a small one, just four loft units designed so each had a door to the outside so artists could open up their spaces as galleries to show and sell their work, along with a common corridor that acted as the main artery to the building to allow artists to keep their spaces closed to the public as needed. There was also a courtyard in the back for live music and social events – “placemaking,” in the parlance of our times, some 16 years later.
He explains it was important to him, a self-taught oil painter and sculpture artist who also studied business and philosophy to incorporate sculptures and murals from this very first project. He commissioned iron and sculpture work as well as murals to adorn the development.
He was attracted to this area of Fresno because, he says, at the time the freeways that connect nearby weren’t there yet; the downtown stadium wasn’t there yet; it was in close proximity to the historic Warnor’s Theatre and the Tower District – the closest thing to an “artsy” district in Fresno at the time – but much of the land and buildings in the immediate surroundings sat empty.
“It was a very different downtown 16 years ago,” says Assemi. “Like so many cities, it lacked of any type of urban planning for years and years, but that particular part of downtown was an open palette. It didn’t really have the density but it had more of a neighborhood-type feel. As far as amenities, it was all right there because downtown Fresno was just two minutes away.”
He knew all the other guys who moved into that first building with him, and remembers how the city felt like a ghost town at night. “The only things you saw were things you didn’t want to see,” he laughs. “When I look at how much it has changed exponentially in 16 years, it’s amazing.”
Mural by Josh Wigger
It would not be unfair to credit Assemi for much of that change. After hosting his first ArtHop event in his new space, Assemi saw immediately that he might be on to something. “When you see people lined up down the block you think, “Holy shit, that’s not what I expected.’ I saw how many people came to that ArtHop and I thought, ‘You know, there’s something here.’ I thought it would be great because I wanted it and I knew people who needed it.”
He might not have started with a long-term plan for what eventually became the Mural District – a name he and his fellow artists christened after the city tried to make “Cultural Arts District” (“too bland”), “Bright Lights District,” and “Uptown” happen – but he figured it out as he went.
“It’s always a little bit of luck that things actually work and you make choices that actually work, but you just do the best you can. The more you do something and think about it, hopefully the better it can work or you can at least do your small part in it, then the demand kind of feeds itself the more that gets done. That’s when you start seeing things really come together.”
The Mural District now encompasses several city blocks downtown, all of it covered in elaborate fine art murals, and Assemi continues to work on redeveloping historic buildings into mixed-use spaces with strong arts components. He just wrapped up a project that was a complete restoration of the historic Pacific Gas & Electric building built in 1926, once home to the Fresno Met, with a marketing company as its anchor tenant and a gallery space in the lobby.
Assemi’s influence has had a reverberating effect throughout downtown Fresno.
Kate Borders, former Executive Director of the Downtown Fresno Partnership, remembers seeing the mural movement take off in the Mural District. The impact on the area was enormous, catapulting it to the status of Fresno’s most innovative neighborhood, but the energy wasn’t quite carrying all the way downtown.
“I wanted to see that energy continuing,” Borders says. “We also wanted to create something with a broader appeal.”
Borders started talking to different mural artists in 2012, worked with Creative Fresno to understand more about mural guidelines and placement, and allocated a public art budget from the still-new organization to support the creation of one or two new murals each year to further its goal to revitalize downtown Fresno and reenvision it as a destination for arts, culture, and community.
“We figured that would be the impetus for that energy creeping downtown,” she says.
The first mural commissioned by the Downtown Fresno Partnership in partnership with Creative Fresno was created by artist FranCisco Vargas over five months, a giant painted mural “stamp” – the largest in the country, in fact – that measures 34 feet tall by 125 feet wide. Each of the letters is filled with smaller pieces depicting Fresno’s most famous people and places, including the artist himself, who passed away a little over a year after the mural was unveiled in 2014.
Brotherhood of Man
One of the main missions of the Downtown Fresno Partnership since its inception in 2011 has been to remove the Fulton Mall, a pedestrian mall that runs through downtown with significant public art displayed along it.
How significant? One of the pieces is a bronze sculpture by Renoir called Washer Woman. There are only six of these pieces in the world, and the other five the public can’t even get close to. In Fresno, kids climb on it.
“In 1964 when the city put the mall in, a group of citizens pulled together their money and bought a 19-piece art collection by internationally-acclaimed artists,” Gretchen Moore explains. “That’s a good early example of how our citizens care so much about art thought. They that it was impossible to include that in a public infrastructure project.”
Fifty years later and that commitment to the arts is just as strong as ever amongst the Fresno citizenry, business owners included. All of the public art that was on the mall is currently undergoing a $5 million restoration and the downtown business and property owners collectively kicked in $250,000 in support of those restoration efforts and bringing traffic back to the street.
Once completed, these works will be placed back on Fulton after it is transitioned back into a complete street – a $20 million reconstruction and economic development effort supported in part by National Endowment for the Arts that has already generated $100 million in investment since the project was approved two years ago – and will be displayed in highly visible areas that are well-lit and well-signed.
These pieces can also be found through the This is Fresno mobile app, developed by local tech company OneSense. The Downtown Fresno Foundation uses this technology to promote downtown ArtHop locations as well as public art, including the Fulton Mall collection as well as murals and other public art throughout downtown. As users walk through downtown, they are notified on their mobile device of the presence of nearby public art and can access information about the piece and the artist.
ArtHop itself – a gallery crawl presented by the Fresno Arts Council and held the first and third Thursday of each month – has inspired local businesses to promote the local arts scene and local artists by hanging works in their buildings to become ArtHop locations, drawing more people into their businesses.
Moore says that many downtown Fresno business owners have been bit with the art bug. The KJWL Radio Station has a gallery in their lobby, participate in ArtHop, and also hold creative writing workshops and guest musicians. Real estate broker Robert Boese – who, perhaps not coincidentally, worked with the Assemi family when he and his family first moved to Fresno – is moving into a historic building downtown and leaving space in the massive storefront for art to be displayed. Bitwise Industries, a tech hub that is home to over 100 small tech companies, recently renovated an historic building and painted a giant mural on the side of the building.
Even the local sports teams get in on the art action: the Downtown Fresno Foundation, in partnership with the AAA Baseball Fresno Grizzlies, painted a “Growlifornia” mural (the team’s de facto slogan) on the back of an old building that overlooks the ballpark.
“Wherever it started, now it’s becoming a thing,” Moore says. “Right next to Boese’s office is a new restaurant that’s also an ArtHop location and also does painting workshops at night. If you move into a space next to that restaurant, of course you have to do embrace the arts. It just kind of becomes this norm.”