Downtown Natchez Alliance president: Group can facilitate productive conversation on public arts program downtown

Published 10:12 pm Saturday, August 13, 2022

NATCHEZ — Chesney Doyle, president of the Downtown Natchez Alliance, spoke during the public hearing on proposed mural guidelines, which was part of the monthly meeting of the Natchez Preservation Commission.

Doyle urged commissioners to table and take no action on those proposed guidelines until a larger community conversation could happen.

“The mission of the Downtown Natchez Alliance is to revitalize downtown in a way that is consistent with the city’s master plan for downtown and following the National Main Street approach. National Main Street is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” Doyle said.

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That approach is a tried and true formula for revitalizing historic downtowns that relies on community engagement.

Key committees of the Downtown Natchez Alliance include organization, design, economic vitality and promotion.

“The mission of the design committee is to create an attractive, well-functioning downtown. Design includes everything you see, from building facades, to flowers, cracks in the sidewalk. We work in concert with other entities. Our goal in the case murals would be to take an obviously complex, multilayered issue and facilitate a solution that works for everybody. And I mean everybody,” she said.

Brenda Zerby of Moreton’s Flowerland is chairperson of the DNA design committee. Ben Hillyer of The Natchez Democrat is a member of the DNA’s design committee.

That consensus would occur by working with the city, Historic Natchez Foundation, the Natchez Preservation Commission and with the arts community and downtown stakeholders.

“That’s how the city’s master plan came about in the first place. It took two years of community engagements. When you have competing visions, you have to align them in some way,” Doyle said.

Part of that conversation is realizing some things are non-negotiable.

“For instance, our program, which is based on the historic preservation ethic, would never recommend something that would destroy the historic infrastructure. That’s not what we are about,” she said.

To date, Doyle said the community has not had a productive conversation about the murals issue, “and that’s the business we are in. The Natchez Preservation Commission, it is not their job to go out and survey everyone in the community and try to be a public arts commission.”

In general, residents do not understand what the different entities in the city are charged with doing.

“The Natchez Preservation Commissions are volunteers. They are commissioned to do a job. They have a legal obligation as commissioners to do a certain job. And people get confused about the Historic Natchez Foundation. Were it not for those two entities, we would not have a town. We would not have the beautiful, historic community we know and love as Natchez. We would have one big parking lot,” she said. “As a starting point, let’s educate ourselves about these entities, what they do and what they can’t do.

“If you go on social media, you will see angry comments from people who think the preservation commissioners are elected. They are not. There is massive confusion in the public arena.”

The Downtown Natchez Alliance and most Main Street communities work to see public arts programs in downtown areas.

“That could involve paintings, film, photography, music, dance, sculpture — all of the arts,” Doyle said. “Art brings life to the city. Art inspires vision and creativity in more than one way. Art can make people happy. Art can make people think. Art is educational. We are exploring with our design committee what a public arts program in Natchez would look like.”

She said she thinks the preliminary questions those involved with the mural issue should ask themselves is, what is the goal?

“If what we are talking about is a First Amendment issue and a property rights issue — the idea that ‘It is my building and I should be able to express myself in any way I want on my building’ — well, that’s a political issue that goes beyond the parameters of what the Downtown Natchez Alliance can do or help with. That’s not why we exist. But if the goal is to bring life in the city, to liven up the city through the arts, that’s something we can all work on together and we can find a beautiful solution that will be exciting and ever changing. No one says that art has to be permanent and fixed. When you go to a museum, you see a different exhibit every time. If it’s the same old, same old, you would stop going. A public arts program downtown opens up all kinds of exciting opportunities. After Katrina, so many artists from the gulf coast made their way to Natchez. They started Arts Natchez. We have a whole arts community here in our town. We have become known as an art town.”

At the same time, all must be mindful about what makes Natchez so attractive to natives and visitors alike.

“Our buildings in Natchez are our brand. We certainly don’t want to cover that up, mask it or destroy it in any way. But if we start to think about public arts in general and how exciting that could be, you can begin to see all of this together as enhancements. We’ve got a vase; let’s put a flower in it,” Doyle said.