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2020 State of Downtown Downtown Advocate Award Winner - Kelly McChesney

2020 DRA Downtown Advocate Award: Kelly McChesney

This year's Downtown Advocate Award goes to Kelly McChesney, Public Art Director at Office of Raleigh Arts. This award honors a government employee whose advocacy and service have positively impacted downtown.

Kelly joined City of Raleigh after founding Flanders Gallery and serving as Director of LUMP Gallery, In her role at City of Raleigh, Kelly has created and executed numerous impactful and creative public art projects from small to large scale. Her impact in downtown can be seen - literally - Kelly worked on the impressive Sonarc light art recently installed in front of Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Other projects she has been instrumental in include: Raleigh Art Beats with 41 small-scale art installations around downtown, John Chavis Memorial Park glass artwork, and sunshade by artist David Wilson, Breath of Gods by Thomas Sayer at Union Station and many more. Kelly is currently working on a million-dollar future project at Civic Campus East among dozens of additional projects launching in the next year. With her creative spirit, City of Raleigh and Downtown are lucky to have Kelly leading the public art in and bringing joy and creativity to our city. 

Learn more about Kelly in the Q&A below including her most rewarding project, what brought her to Raleigh, and what public art projects from other cities she finds inspiring.

Photo by Ben McKeown

What led you to work at the Office of Raleigh Arts? How long have you been with COR? 
The people. I had an amazing experience working with the Raleigh Arts staff on the Nina Simone crochet mural in 2018. The staff was supportive of the project and all the 150+ people who contributed to making the artwork. The staff showed me that their job was to uplift others and amplify the talent of our arts community. I have been working in the arts for over 20 years, and I knew these were the people I wanted to work alongside.

What has been the most rewarding project you've worked on during your time with Office of Arts? 
The Oberlin Road public art project. Through our work on this project, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with the Friends of Oberlin Village and local artist Chandra Cox. We are working together to record oral histories, scan old photographs from personal collections, and talk with people who may not have been heard in the past. Getting to talk with the original residents and descendants of original residents has been an honor, and they have taught me so much.

What energizes you at work?
I am energized at work when an artist’s project connects with the community. When I see or hear that people are inspired by or delighted by a public artwork, that is the best feeling. Artists make art to connect with others. When I see that connection happen, it makes me proud of the work we do.

Where are you originally from? If not from Raleigh, how and when did you come to Raleigh?
I was born in Georgia and moved around quite a bit in my early adult years. I chose to move to Raleigh in 2006 to open my first art space, Flanders Gallery. In 2006, Raleigh already had an amazing arts community, but only had a small handful of private art galleries. I saw Raleigh as a place with potential growth, but also welcoming of new people. This was a place where I could start and grow my business. For those who know about Flanders Gallery, I think it was easy to see that I enjoyed exhibiting installations and artwork that might be harder to place in private homes. So, while the gallery didn’t prove to be a financially successful business model, it connected me more deeply with our local arts community and eventually lead me to public art.

What public art projects from other cities do you find inspiring and impactful? 
I pay attention to the temporary public art programs that are available in other cities. For example, New York has both the Public Art Fund and Performa. These are non-profit organizations that lead the way in temporary public art programs and commission artists from across disciplines to create performances and installations around the entire City. I think that municipal public art programs that focus only on permanent sculptures are missing out on what much of their local art communities have to offer. This is one reason that Raleigh started a temporary public art program called SEEK. There is something magical about seeing installations and performances in unexpected places. A temporary public art program also encourages increased engagement with our local artist community and current artistic practices.

What energizes you outside of work?
Running in the woods with my dogs and going to see art exhibitions and performances. I get to daydream when I run and become inspired by seeing other people’s ideas brought to life.

What is a recent show or movie you watched and loved?
Right now, I’m watching a lot of movies that are on Lump’s Hit List. When the pandemic began, many organizations turned to other ways of producing content. Lump started a weekly list of movie, book, and music recommendations here. One of my favorite movies from that list is called “The Fits” by Anna Rose Holmer, Saela Davis, and Lisa Kjerulff. I couldn’t take my eyes off this movie and it is one that I want to watch over and over. 

What are some of your favorite places to spend time, visit, eat, and shop in Downtown Raleigh? 
I’m a bit biased because I spent years working here, but I tend to spend the most time at Lump Gallery in Downtown Raleigh. Lump is an artist-run space that has a history of challenging art exhibits. Even when alone, there is a really good feeling about the space – like all the artists who worked there have left a bit of their good spirits. I also spend a fair bit of time at El Rodeo (because it’s affordable and close to Lump). Garland, Capital Club 16, and Centro are just a few of my favorite dining spots. Also, I’m a sucker for the baklava croissant at lucettegrace or vegan cookie at Morning Times (no, I’m not vegan, but it’s delicious). I also love the fact that Downtown Raleigh has lots of locally owned stores: Deco, Zen Succulent, and Father and Sons are just a few places I love to browse. I don’t have children, but I still like to go into Read with Me every now and then. Local stores like these are really a treasure for our downtown community.

Congratulations to Kelly McChesney!