Photos by Derek Bell
With a glass of Merlot and a critical eye, the culturally mindful peruse the galleries of local artists, the showcases of eclectic craftsmen, and the promising work of young artisans. These patrons pause to appreciate the waterway below as they stroll along the bridge, enlightened by the brush strokes and the string lighting. Color, music and aroma saturate the setting. No one is in rush and everyone is at ease. Time has decelerated for the express purpose of cherishing the ambiance. For these moments, suspended between the two riverbanks and over the water, you are in Paris, Milan, or Vienna, and life has never been finer.
This is the mood the Rome Area Council for the Arts (RACA) aims to offer at the 2016 Fire Fly Fling, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the organization, championing the artist culture of Rome and Floyd County, and campaigning for the future of the 5th Avenue River District. While it is not a riverwalk along the Seine or a cobblestone piazza, RACA will close off the 5th Avenue Bridge for the event on April 22, creating a temporary cultural hotspot to highlight the arts and hint at the possibilities to come.
Although RACA has a long history of financially fostering and organizationally supporting the local creative culture, Executive Director Rainey Campbell says the Fire Fly Fling has gained community support and clarity of purpose in recent years. “Over the last five years, we have really worked to reinvent the event as something anybody and everybody would want to come out to experience,” she explains. “These transitions really began when two members of the board, Megan Watters and Laurie Hubbard, took over the event as co-chairs for the 35th RACA celebration.”
Now, five years later, the planning committees for the annual festival have gained confidence and competence in organizing and orchestrating a real community affair. With the motivation from the success of last year’s Farm-to-Table-themed Fire Fly Fling at the Woodlee Culinary Arts Center, Campbell is eager for this year’s downtown edition.
Although RACA is celebrating 40 years, according to Campbell, the event has never before been hosted within the city proper. “This is the first year ever having the Fire Fly Fling downtown in Rome,” she says, “and the choice to host it here stems from a desire to build energy around the continued development of the area.”
The decision of venue is an intentional complement to the selection of theme. Although the 5th Avenue Bridge does physically associate the south and north banks of the Oostanaula River, it culturally separates the maturing vitality of Broad Street from the unfortunate restraint of North 5th Avenue. While Broad Street has thrived thanks to enterprising restaurateurs, water-loving barkeeps and sidewalks that re-main in place after 5 p.m., across the bridge, a canvas awaits.
Because RACA’s official mission is “to enrich the Greater Rome Community through the unifying and compelling power of the arts,” the organization hopes the artistic atmosphere of this year’s Fire Fly Fling will unite the community behind their vision for the north bank.
“In 2012, the City of Rome contracted a consulting firm to produce a Rome Master Plan that would guide the expansion and development of the downtown area,” Campbell says. “In this strategic manual, there was a chapter identifying the 5th Avenue River District as a potential center for the creative arts.”
She, along with many other community voices, believes in and supports this rebirth, knowing an arts district increases economic development, encourages community pride, and adds aesthetic value.
“We see this year’s Fire Fly Fling as a catalyst for activating that space so the Rome community can visualize what it could be like,” she adds. “If this River District became the Arts District, there would be a whole new locale for live music, for food trucks, and for businesses devoted to fostering an appreciation for local art and the artisans of our area.”
This possibility is propelling the theme of the 2016 Fire Fly Fling. “We are going to pop up the potential of North 5th Avenue on the bridge,” Campbell explains. “We are going to have a stage. We are going to have the food trucks. We are going to have art.”
Along with the macro-level inspirational purpose behind the event, the Fire Fly Fling will also highlight and feature the artistry of high school students who entered the Fire Fly Fling Student Art Competition.
“We are always working to provide opportunities for younger artists to hone their craft and to promote their work,” says Campbell. “The competition was open to all high schoolers submitting two-dimensional artwork, and we awarded the top three artists with a cash prize.”
In keeping with the theme of celebrating the arts, the festival will display many of the submissions on the bridge. “In the past, we have had guests inquire about purchasing the paintings, prints and drawings from the students,” adds Campbell. “By organizing this showcase, we have an opportunity to celebrate with these young artists.”
Although the competition functions primarly as a catalytic event for any aspiring brushes and pencils, the judges did select the three finalists: Lexi Beard in first place with “Downtown Midnight Glow,” Chandler Adams in second with “Lights of Rome,” and LeAnn Johnstone with “Untitled.”
For RACA and their other community partners, this component of the celebration is close to the heart of their mission. By empowering a group of rising creatives in immediate proximity to North 5th Avenue, the future of the north bank will be woven together with the future ambitions of Rome’s youth.
With so much support already gathered for the 2016 Fire Fly Fling and, more generally, for the riverside renewal, Campbell is ready for April 22 and the anticipation she hopes it will generate within the public. “When people first enter the Fire Fly Fling, we want them to pick up on the eclectic vibe of the could-be district,” she says. “If we can help them reimagine the old facades and brickwork of the area as a thriving arts hub, we have done our job. I want people to walk away from the event energized by the possibility of these transformations and ready to help pave the way.”
Forty years after the establishment of the Rome Area Council for the Arts, the organization continues to create community around creativity. Whether cheering on an eleventh-grade painter or painting the possibilities for urban restoration, Campbell and her team of top-shelf party planners, patrons of culture, and social connectors are confident in the merit of their cause. The 2016 Fire Fly Fling is, certainly, a celebration of their untold hours committed to a brighter tomorrow. Certainly, people will drink their wine, toast the future of Rome and realize a new appreciation for the arts. Certainly, people will forget they are in Rome, only partially due to the jubilant toasting. However, far more than a stage for self-promotion or an excuse for hosting a swanky block party, this festival – this riverside revival – is a bridge between the “here and now” and the future of a community not willing to settle for anything less than best.
To learn more about the Rome Area Council for the Arts and to register for the 2016 Fire Fly Fling, visit www.RomeArts.org.