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Why Busking?

Atlanta markets itself as an international destination and begins to fill those shoes. Filling them further will depend on many things, but we at StreetStage Atlanta think busking would help. Few American cities can fully accommodate street performance (“busking”): New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Key West nurture vibrant international busking scenes. StreetStage, a festival showcasing topnotch performers from around the world, will bring professional buskers here in October to launch and encourage a family-friendly busking environment. We feel that by bringing to Atlanta streets the unique art of street performance, a public and most accessible art form, we will further enhance the mayor’s Arts and Culture Taskforce mission to increase “access to and presence of arts and culture in Atlanta” and to “nurture a stronger understanding of and appreciation for arts and culture.”

Festivals tend to feature arts and crafts booths, with a stage or two for rock and roll or jazz. In October the street itself will be the stage, and the first question, of course, is “why busking?” What impact would we hope for street performance to have?

Busking puts a welcoming face on a city, gets people out of their cars strolling, congregating with strangers, laughing together or all wondering at once, “How did he do that?” The atmosphere this creates (and optimally continues) is something like the essence of the cityscape as destination, as a place to be drawn to, a place to be. Nothing would breathe life into a city center all but deserted after business hours quite as effectively as street performance. Reurbanization is under way in Atlanta, and the core could be altogether different five years from now. We think busking will be integral to the way Atlanta presents itself to the world--assuming the city has succeeded in efforts to, as the Taskforce put it, “catapult Atlanta to world-class arts and culture status.” Popular entertainment will be valued for its contributions to the creative and cultural life of the city, and there will be recognition of the precious vitality of street performance as a laboratory for creative expression. Busking allows innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to find its own audience.

Performers who start careers on the street have fond memories of working there, the “magic” that happens and the great performances witnessed. Busking is a great way for up-and-comers to learn audience savvy, gain confidence, figure out what works, hone skills, and turn these skills into a show. For established artists it’s about freedom. When buskers can make a decent living on their own terms, they control their careers and are free to develop and grow without catering to influences beyond their creativity. This can be delightfully empowering, as we’ll see in October.

Several constituencies in Atlanta want street performance to work here. Central Atlanta Progress, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Brand Atlanta, the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the Mayor’s Office all see this vision as a winner and suggest ideas that on the surface look like good opportunities to support busking, such as “Fridays on Broad Street,” “Wednesdays in Woodruff,” creating a schedule for performers to work in the park. There has been an idea floated that Woodruff Park might be designated a free art zone for public performance with a stipend for performers--all positive steps and good intentions, but put the cart before the horse. They miss an important point about busking.

People don’t come out to see buskers, buskers come out to where people gather. Busking thrives in areas where people are strolling, exploring unhurried on foot. The areas where it works best are spots of tourist interest--Key West sunsets at Mallory Pier, museum plazas, tourist destinations with high-end retail and restaurants. Busking is rare in Manhattan’s Central Park. Parks are for recreation, not exploration, and performers who have tried to do shows in Central Park and have discovered it’s not very practical. On the other hand, busking has flourished in the NYC subway system--string ensembles on platforms and short magic shows in subway cars between stations. Buskers are innovative and can make anywhere a stage, but it’s not a science. It’s more like alchemy, happening in a field if the circumstances are right, at a music festival, but it’s fragile. Excessive noise or distractions at the wrong moment can wreck an artist’s act.

If Atlanta wants to promote busking, it must keep this freedom and fragility in mind. We need to develop an environment in which busking can flourish. To this end, we hope to encourage Atlanta’s downtown tourism principals like the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the High Museum, and Centennial Olympic Park that their leadership is important. Their powerful example can help jump start creativity in the streets throughout the city and embrace public access to entertainment on private property. There are certain quality control issues that would no doubt need to be addressed, but these principal locations want performers and are willing to pay them privately, but have expressed objections to passing the hat. They don’t want to seem to promote panhandling, but busking is an entirely different phenomenon.

As in any art form, there is good work and not very good work. Busking can be self regulating, part of the free market, in that great performers do well with their hat and poor acts do not. In the case of persistently mediocre acts on private property, there should still be the opportunity for management to make judgment calls: giving permission and certifying some acts that show themselves to be tasteful and conscientious in their dealings with the public, and withholding permission from others. But instead of private principal funds devoted to paying performers, we would rather see those funds used for the jurying process. (Boston juries and licenses the buskers that work in Fanuel Hall--the city’s busiest tourist destination.) Rather than paying for mediocre acts, by nurturing the freedom to busk we would not only draw more, but better, performers.

More high quality performers on Atlanta’s streets means cultural and artistic enrichment for the city and increased accessibility to the arts for more Atlanta residents and visitors, two very important developments that will play a “prominent role in the city’s identity.”

To this end we propose:

consider busking “public art” and conduct a busking feasibility study to utilize in making decisions toward enlivening Atlanta’s streets. This would sound silly to any professional busker, but organizations and corporate funders would want this quantified;

support this organization’s efforts to convince the tourism principals that busking is a positive step in the development of a lively street culture that can coexist with the current corporate culture ruling of the daylight hours;

work closely with downtown’s businesses and developers to keep small business in the mix of growth; large corporate facades do not encourage evening strollers; closed after business hours, they offer little for urban exploration;

encourage Atlanta’s traffic planners to reexamine the layout of downtown’s one way streets; the current traffic plan keeps cars away from the park and requires vehicles to drive circles around the downtown area trying to make a turn that would seem intuitive.

Busking Feasibility Study

A group of performers armed with their show and evaluation forms (on line survey) would spend several months performing in any and all kinds of street environments (good, bad, obvious and surprising) in order to:

entertain Atlanta,
see what works and what doesn’t,
determine which are the best times of day and
who are the best audiences for what kinds of acts?

A study will begin in and around festivals in the fall which are planning to incorporate street performing into their lineup: Atlanta Arts Festival, Taste of Atlanta, and StreetStage Atlanta. This should offer an indication of public art support and attitude change.

Data gathered can be used to make decisions toward enlivening Atlanta’s streets. Survey results

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