Murals, glass works, and sculptures line the streets of Norfolk, Virginia’s NEON District celebrating both the old and the new with more than sixty pieces of public art on display. An acronym for “New Energy Of Norfolk,” the district also features neon art, a nod to Norfolk’s neon heyday, when electric signage advertised the city’s booming automobile industry, including a Ford manufacturing plant that operated from 1925-2007.
Launched in 2013, the district is supported by grassroots planning from artists and civic leaders, including the city’s Public Art Commission and the NEON District Committee.
Property owners, tenants, and artists are motivated by the public art grant program, which provides funding to revitalize and beautify a downtown area that was once neglected.
Although the district has been active for the past six years, the city and the Downtown Norfolk Council have been working on these efforts for the past twenty years, says Rachel McCall, special projects manager for the Downtown Norfolk Council.
“Norfolk firmly believes in the economic, creative, and human value of an arts community,” she says. “Public art is an essential piece of this place making, creating opportunities for interaction, play, and beautification.”
Artists are not only inspired by the rich heritage of neon signage that advertised the automobile dealers and repair shops of the past but also the current arts scene, which includes the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio.
The Studio offers a neon bending class to the public and opportunities for experienced studio artists and beginner glass assistants to hone their craft. Glass artists (including well-known neon artists) hold demonstrations at Chrysler’s “hot shop.”
“The combination of historic influence and modern artistry has made the district perfectly situated for neon, glass, and sign experimentation,” says McCall. “Additionally, there are a number of new neon signs that property and business owners have now added to the neighborhood.”
One example of a neon art piece is “SEEP NFK” (see photo below), created by Chicago artist Erik L. Peterson who first displayed the piece in Norfolk in 2015 for AGLOW, a neon exhibition showcasing local, national, and international artists who work with sculptural neon. Following the show, Peterson loaned the piece to NEON, which is currently featured on an historic apartment building in the district. The local sign industry also took part in this project; a neon sign fabricator and installer worked closely with the Downtown Norfolk Council to complete the display.
NEON’s signage program extends beyond its namesake. In 2017 and 2018, the Downtown Norfolk Council created a wayfinding program to help visitors navigate the arts district.
“The signage package focused on connecting two sides of the district at a pedestrian scale,” says McCall. “The program included locally made glass discs embedded in city sidewalks, custom fabricated metal, and concrete monolith signs with directions and display windows for vinyl art.”
In addition, a bus station canopy was retrofitted with a sculptural piece that showcased the NEON District logo. Local fabricators and a sign company supported the fabrication of the project, in collaboration with a graphic design and architecture firm who spearheaded the drawings.
The range of artwork on display in the district reflects the diversity and talent of the city, creating a tapestry of both small and large pieces that dot the cityscape. Describing the pieces as everything from “tiny pops of color” to giant murals, electric signs, and temporary fiber pieces, McCall says that much diversity underlies the talent, “Internationally known artists have created large-scale works, as have student artists as young as fifteen years old.”
At any given point, a visitor to the district might see one piece created by a local art professor and another by a New York muralist. “We also have pieces created by local university students, sign fabricators, and glass artists of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. The murals are just as varied as the creators,” says McCall.
The Council receives a high number of applicants for each open call. Once selected, artists receive micro-grants of up to $599 for material and design costs. Property owners and tenants can apply for matching grants (up to $2,500) of the funds raised in support of a project.
In drawing visitors, the arts district is achieving its goal of revitalizing the area. “The public is extremely welcoming to public art,” says McCall. “Visitors, both professional and amateur photographers, come to the NEON District primarily to take photos.”
More property owners are also taking advantage of the grant program and investing in art for public display. “Businesses are now accustomed to public art, often requesting a mural upon signing a lease in the neighborhood,” says McCall.
The Council plans on adding more neon, repairing and maintaining the pieces, and continuing an ongoing project to display LED signage. “The artwork serves to knit together a sense of pride for our local fabric in Norfolk,” says McCall. “Our city has one of the largest concentrations of public art on the east coast, in a very dense area that is highly walkable and recognizable.”
Note: This article appeared in the May 2019 issues of Sign Builder Illustrated magazine.