By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
In 2018, the banners hanging from the light posts dotting downtown Monticello had faded and ripped from more than a decade of use.
At the time, the Monticello City Council had just authorized a new city program to use art as a tool to foster downtown community and economic development. It hired a creative arts consultant, local artist Sue Seeger, to lead the effort.
Soon after, Monticello’s Community Development Department got the green light to replace the aging banners as part of its ongoing downtown revitalization project. “We definitely needed banners that would pop a little bit more,” says Communication Coordinator Rachel Leonard.
Seeger mulled over the banner project, and she came up with a novel idea. The city could source banner images through an art contest for residents, Seeger suggested.
The contest would build enthusiasm, she thought, and rally the community behind beautifying downtown, especially the Walnut Street corridor, which extends from the heart of downtown Monticello out to the Mississippi River.
“Sue was a driving force behind the project, having us think outside the box a little bit,” says Leonard. “The idea for the contest developed organically. We wanted to bring more people downtown, to support our businesses, and to make our Walnut Street corridor feel more like a cohesive, exciting place to be.”
A grassroots effort
Monticello (population 13,553) opened the banner art contest at the end of May 2018 and accepted submissions from community members through July 10.
The contest’s four categories included general, winter, Riverfest — Monticello’s big annual summer celebration — and downtown.
The plan was to select four winners from each category. Banners made from the winning pieces of artwork would hang on light posts positioned on downtown streets, along with a general Monticello town banner that was designed by an in-house graphic artist.
Community members were encouraged to submit artwork in a variety of mediums, including photography, painting, collage, mixed media, digital art, or illustration. Seeger helped get the message out about the contest through the city’s school district, where she has connections. Word also spread through social media, the city website, and Council meeting announcements.
“It was a ground-up, grassroots effort,” says Seeger, whose metal sculpture is displayed in local city parks. “I saw the banner project as a great way to get the community involved and as something for the creative community to coalesce around a bit.”
At first, Seeger and city administrators weren’t quite sure just how much participation they would get from Monticello residents. But then, submissions started to pour in. They came from both professional and amateur artists, adults, and also children as young as elementary school age. Some residents submitted multiple pieces of art, and they all gave the city permission to use their creations for future city initiatives as well.
Most pieces were oil paintings, and many were nature scenes, “but it really ran the gamut,” Leonard says. Submissions included paintings of the Mississippi River and wildflowers, of swans
(Monticello is known for its swans), and of a colorful nighttime fireworks display. The city saw such a high level of participation in the contest, and at such a high quality, that Seeger and others recommended increasing the number of community-designed banners, and the City Council approved the idea.
“We wanted the banners to feel authentic to the community,” says Leonard, “not just something you could pick up and place in any small city across the country. People were excited to see the different characteristics of Monticello come to life on the banners. We got truly phenomenal feedback on the project from the community.”
Building community excitement
Angela Schumann, Monticello’s community development director, also participated in the banners initiative, and she worked with Seeger to put together a creative committee of judges — made up of community members and local artists — to pick contest finalists.
The committee spread out residents’ artwork on tables in Monticello’s Community Center to choose the finalists for each category. “It was just really cool to see the whole array of submissions,” Seeger says.
Seeger came up with the idea to hold a Creative City Celebration one weekend to select the winners and honor all the artists who submitted their work. Community members who attended the afternoon event, held on a grassy spot downtown across from the Monticello Community Center, got to vote on the winners.
Local artists and food vendors set up booths, while musicians and dancers performed throughout the afternoon. Leonard says both the contest and the celebration went off without a hitch.
“Anytime you do something new and different, your mind goes to, what are the potential problems?” Leonard says. “But it was so smooth. We were so happy with the level of participation and the submissions we got.”
The key is to really listen to community members and let them help drive initiatives. Then you get real buy-in, Leonard says.
“Allow the community to tell you what they think is important and unique, and what makes their community home,” she says. “They’re going to come up with ideas that you never thought possible, and you’ll end up with a product that’s so unique to your place that it feels like it’s meant to be there.”
The new banners have been up along downtown streets for a little over a year now, with four or five designs hung at one time. The city rotates the banners seasonally.
“It’s been fantastic,” Leonard says. “The arts initiative has really exceeded our wildest expectations.”
At $13,575, the banners also ended up costing the city less money than the expected $15,000 budget, which included costs to professionally print the banners plus hardware to hang them. Leonard hopes the banners will last another 10 to 15 years.
A new citywide arts initiative
The banner contest lays the groundwork for Monticello’s new Monti Arts initiative, which Seeger was brought on to lead. The city will find innovative ways for community members to use their creativity to help change and shape Monticello for the better.
“The banner contest was the first sign of life in support of that plan,” Schumann says. “It was a chance for us to start connecting downtown with the community. We wanted residents to know that there’s something happening downtown, to create community and to really enliven our downtown.”
Also in 2018, Monticello kicked off a Music on the Mississippi project, which featured live concert events in the city’s Riverfront Park. The following year, the city put in curb extensions to make downtown safer for both pedestrians and cars.
“We recognized that to be successful downtown, we needed to find ways to bring people downtown,” says Schuman.
Leonard says that after the banners project concluded, and before the coronavirus pandemic, it was exciting to see more and more residents strolling through downtown, with many stopping to admire the new banners designed by their friends and family members.
The next step in the downtown revitalization project is a facade improvement program for downtown businesses.
Monticello has a grant program for that purpose, and the infrastructure has been put in place. Before COVID-19, city officials had an initial meeting with downtown property owners to discuss improvements. But the pandemic has put everything on hold for now.
“We’re looking for an opportunity to reengage property owners,” Schumann says. “The facade improvements program really needs care and feeding to be successful.”
Even though everything is on hold now, Schumann says they’re confident they’ll be able to get back on track with downtown revitalization efforts at some point.
Schumann looks forward to continued partnership with Seeger, with the city’s artistic community, and above all, with local residents. It’s a crucial component to making sure downtown continues to grow and thrive, she says.
“Sue is making sure creativity and arts are a thread in our downtown,” says Schumann. “Arts can really help strengthen downtown.”
Downtowns, she adds, require both constant reinvestment and nurturing.
“This isn’t a one and done,” says Schumann. “This is the first step of what should be many more initiatives. Getting your community involved in the reinvestment is really the key.”
Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.