Jonathan Harwell-Dye helps the Macon Arts Alliance get a seat at the table
Jonathan Harwell-Dye’s career in the arts didn’t start out in the most obvious way. The Director of Communications for the Macon Arts Alliance began as a science illustration major at the University of Georgia, where he worked with scientists doing etymological illustrations, translating the world of science into the artistic world.
“It’s a fascinating field,” he says. “It also gave me a foundation of being able to translate art to people who aren’t in artistic fields. I feel like today I’m able to use that to translate on a regular basis.”
He intended to go on after college to work as a science or medical illustrator, but decided to go into the professional world and work as a graphic designer instead, eventually becoming creative director of a local newspaper where he worked for seven years.
Immediately after college Harwell-Dye was still interested in working with other artists. “In college you really have that community to make yourself a better artist and encourage others,” he says, so he and two of his friends formed the Three Cities Group Artist Collective in 2004. The group did exhibits together for five years, during which time Harwell-Dye was introduced to Macon.
“Working with the Three Cities group introduced me to the art scene in Macon. I got engaged with the Contemporary Arts Exchange and eventually became the gallery director,” Harwell-Dye says. “I really fell in love with Macon at that time. I did that for two years, doing it out of the love for it while I was still at the newspaper.”
The collective became a social practice project, doing one exhibit where people were invited to protest and another where all of the art was censored, each examining how community building might be its own art form.
Harwell-Dye’s career continued to evolve and he became the editor of two other newspapers, when the Director of Communications position became available at the Macon Arts Alliance.
“I got to combine all my experience I’ve had since college [in this position] – my combined experience in the newspaper industry and work as an artist and illustrator,” says Harwell-Dye. “I had already sort of fallen in love with Macon as a community because of the artists I had already built relationships here. I came back to a community that was really doing some exciting things that weren’t even going on at the time [we had the collective].”
The mission of the Macon Arts Alliance is to foster and support the advancement of arts and culture in central Georgia.
“Our jobs are to make the arts community organizations in this area successful, to give them the resource they need to be successful,” Harwell-Dye explains. The Alliance is designated as a liaison between the arts community and government officials. “We try to develop the arts in a way that develops a stronger community as well. We try to align ourselves with community goals – community development, economic development – and be a good example and steward of the people who support us with our mission of building better arts organizations.”
The Alliance helps build the capacity of local artists to create strong work and also support themselves financially, while being a leader in how to move the community forward in terms of arts and culture. It has been around for more than 30 years, since 1984, and was designated as a local arts agency by the county and again by the city in 1988. In 2014 the Alliance was once again redesignated under the city’s new consolidated government.
The organization has a number of different programs that all serve its greater mission to be a leader in developing the arts community. Among them is the Arts Roundtable, which represents about 50 arts and culture organizations in the area and serves member organizations by having a constant presence with them, promoting collaboration and making sure everyone is aware of what the other organizations are doing. Amplify is a new program that started a year ago, a professional membership program that has workshops, toolkits, and resources for individuals who want to start creative businesses.
A project that Harwell-Dye is currently working on is Momentum for the Arts, bringing together 11 organizations three regional, eight from the roundtable – with the Georgia Center for Nonprofits to work on strategic planning and leadership development. “We’re looking at organizations that don’t have strategic plans and helping them develop, sharing things like best practices for board policies, what should be a standing committee what should be a task force, what’s an example of conflict of interest. That’s an offshoot of [the Roundtable], that we have the strongest and best-run arts organizations that we can.”
In addition to fostering a growing arts community, and complementary to its more institutional work, the Alliance also runs a gallery in downtown Macon that sells work by Georgia artists. “We want to provide a venue for artists to be able to sell their work. We think it’s important to give the artists a place to show their work and give [them that opportunity].”
Through the gallery the Alliance hosts the Fired Works exhibit every year, a ceramics exhibit with more than 65 artists and 6,000 pieces shown over nine days. “This exhibit is the largest exhibit of functional and sculptural pottery in the state of Georgia based on the number of artists,” Dye says. “It provides a venue for ceramic artists and also the history of area…with the Muscogee Creek Nation, pottery has been made in this area for over 15,000 years. Fired Works is a celebration not just of today’s working artists but a heritage that goes back a very long time.”
The Alliance also works in an advocacy role, hosting an annual arts advocacy breakfast in partnership with the organizations they work with to advocate for something specific every year; in 2013, the first year of the breakfast, the focus was on getting the consolidated city government to continue recognizing the Alliance as a local arts agency. They succeeded. In 2014, they advocated for representation on the Macon Economic Development Commission board. They succeeded once again.
“We have a long list of issues on jobs, schools, and creating sense of place,” Harwell-Dye explains. “We’ve identified issues that we take back to the Roundtable and our constituents – ‘These are the challenges; what can we do to help address them?’ – We’re working on ways arts can be used to tackle blight in the community. Our advocacy was used to get arts a seat at the table and now we use our unique skills to [develop] creative ways to try to help.”
Next year, the Americans for the Arts’ new Community Visions Initiative will launch in Macon. “We’re doing a two-year study of local arts agencies and what they should look like in the future, asking, ‘Is this something a local arts agency should tackle and how should it function?’ We try to fulfill this role in the community in developing arts organizations and individual artists, being the organization that says ‘these are community issues that we as arts organizations are uniquely capable of tackling. The arts community is a resource and we’re going to prove it.'”