Downtown Kokomo has a new public art space — Courthouse Alley.
And there’s even more to come as the Greater Kokomo Downtown Association’s All Alleys Lead to Art initiative is just getting started.
The newly transformed alley, located on the southside of the Courthouse Square on Sycamore Street, is one of five alleys targeted by the project, said a press release from the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance.
“The initiative’s mission is to not only create inviting public art spaces, but to also create learning opportunities through the installation of the art accessories that will allow for a variety of art forms to be enjoyed in alleyways around downtown,” said Susan Alexander, manager of downtown creative placemaking for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, in the release.
The success of the mission went far beyond what Alexander expected. The initial plan was just to make pallet benches, she said. Dubbed "Pallets with Purpose," the project was a collaboration between FCA US LLC, The Crossing School of Business & Entrepreneurship, SHAK Makerspace and the Greater Kokomo Downtown Association.
Together, the students and FCA US skilled trades team members worked at SHAK Makerspace to design, build, finish and then install pallet benches. As relationships grew, the scope of the project expanded. They went on to create tables, gardens, wall art mounts and art from recycled materials.
“As the group spent time together, it innovated to create a completely decked-out, multi-textured public art space,” Alexander said. “This alley is the product of mentors with apprentices, excitement and eagerness with experience and knowledge. This is the result of the energy created when we work together.”
The project was initiated by FCA US team members who sought an opportunity for a community collaboration that would allow them to connect with and mentor area youth. Pallets with Purpose allowed the team to help the students build life skills and self-confidence while also benefiting the community through use of the automaker’s recycled materials, which is a company-wide environmental priority.
“This project is a source of pride for not only our Kokomo operations, but for FCA US as a whole,” said Maria Milescu, environment, health and safety manager with FCA US. “The local team turned a recycling priority into an opportunity to improve the lives of the students involved and the community that will enjoy the space they created.”
Marcia Blacklidge, who volunteered her time and artistic skills to serve as exhibit director for the project, created the art pieces now hanging on the student-built mounts along the alley. Inspired by the students, Blacklidge created 14 pieces of large-scale artwork from designs of flags around the world.
Students’ work on the project began at SHAK Makerspace in May, with a hiatus for summer break. When students returned in August, final installation of the pieces in Courthouse Alley began. The alley officially opened to the community during First Friday on Sept. 7.
The community has already been making use of the new public space.
“Every time I go there, the benches are moved,” Alexander said. “Studies from The Musicant Group through its work with Indiana Main Street have shown that movable furniture is a tenant of a dynamic public space. It’s clear we’ve created that dynamic in Courthouse Alley.”
Downtown Kokomo is no stranger to alley transformations, or “activations” as they say in the industry.
In the late 1990s, the Kokomo Common Council began passing ordinances to close some downtown alleys to vehicular traffic as part of the early stages of downtown revitalization efforts.
“Now open only to pedestrians, the newly found public spaces made it possible for us to create inviting gathering areas in the heart of the city,” Alexander said. “While efforts were already underway, these new opportunities really set the stage for placemaking efforts to begin in earnest.”
The first project was Alleyscape, now called Garden Alley, located on the east side of the Courthouse Square on Main Street. The alley opened in September 2001 after community organizations came together to add green space, public art, lighting and benches.
Garden Alley was followed in 2014 by Artist Alley, a 24/7 outdoor art gallery. Located next to Artworks Gallery at 210 N. Main St., the space opened with nine art mounts to accommodate an annually changing exhibit of large-scale artwork and sculptures.
It’s the draw of those alleys to visitors and residents alike that created the spark for All Alleys Lead to Art, Alexander said.
“We looked at Artist Alley and Garden Alley and thought, ‘Let’s build on that success. We’ve got three other alleys into which we could breathe new life,’” she said.
Because of its financial support of Artist Alley, the downtown association approached the Community Foundation of Howard County with the project in 2017. The community foundation approved grant funding for the project, which will see the creation of three additional alley activations and upgrades to Artist Alley and Garden Alley.
The three new alleys include Geek Alley next to Wings Etc., Courthouse Alley on Sycamore Street, and Depot Alley next to Oscars Pizza. Each new alley will have a unique atmosphere and highlight a different medium of art, including video, light, sound, and live performance.
Courthouse Associates LLC, a local law firm, also contributed financial support to the project.
“The beauty of this project is that it’s not buying art. Rather, it’s making art possible,” Alexander said. “Our hope is that these alleys will help propel forward the work of professional and student artists, both locally, regionally and statewide.
“And what’s more, the creation and display of that art will help ‘merchandise’ the community by allowing its ‘front window’ exhibits to change. It will increase the sense of community pride and ownership by many local artists of all ages and abilities who will share their many forms of arts for years to come.”