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ArtPop brings art to the interstates, highways of Charleston via billboards

Date: January 26, 2018

Wendy Hickey, the founder and executive director of ArtPop Street Gallery in Charleston, SC, brings community art alive by posting artists work on billboards. With the artists finding their own success, Hickey aims to make the "tough days worth it".

Here’s a familiar scene: You’re stuck in traffic on I-26, I-526 or downtown. You look up and around, hoping for a different view than the broken tailpipe of the car in front of you. Construction to the left, more traffic to the right. Above you, an endless supply of billboards and advertisements.

But if you see a few billboards that don’t look like the others, billboards that look like a giant canvas wrapped in artwork, your eyes aren’t playing tricks. The person responsible for the idea behind those billboards is Wendy Hickey, founder and executive director of ArtPop Street Gallery.

“I wanted to help artists market their art,” Hickey says. "I wanted to help be their voice. And the payoff has been huge for the success the artists have had so far. It makes the tough days worth it.”

If the tough days get to her, Hickey shows no trace of it in her voice. She’s animated and lively on the phone and she laughs often. When she discusses ArtPop, her idea that brought art to interstates and highways, there’s palpable enthusiasm in her voice.

That enthusiasm drove her career in the billboard industry for 20 years, and still does. She’s the only person I’ve spoken to that admits a “huge love for the medium."

A passion for the medium of billboards? No way.

“I do!” Hickey says, laughing. "It was more the creative side that made me fall in love with the medium. I would be the salesperson who would push to do the best creative job for our clients. I would look through printed books of billboard examples and I knew we could help clients grow their business.”

Her love for local art and billboards met when she took a position on Pocono Arts Council in Pennsylvania. While considering how best to serve the arts, Hickey says the thought “was like a light bulb,” and she pitched the idea of using unsold billboards to showcase artwork.

“It was very grassroots then, in 2002,” Hickey says. “It was just me, one on one, with the artists in the community trying to get their art printed on vinyl.”

Sixteen years later and ArtPop Street Gallery is in 14 cities and nine states, with more coming. A nonprofit organization as of 2015, ArtPop artists are selected through a submission process to a panel of judges comprising local people and artists from that city to ensure the art remains rooted in the community.

And that’s why in Charleston, you’ll see five local artists’ work on five billboards: Janie Ball, Kate Hooray Osmond, Laura Dargan, Barbara Duval and Sarah Buell Dowling. And local businesses such as Adams Outdoor Advertising and organizations including the Charleston Art Alliance help make it happen.

The “space/rent” for #ArtPopCHS is donated by Adams Outdoor Advertising, which is why the billboards always change locations — as soon as they are sold the vinyls move to the next available location.

The production of the five printed vinyls for the initial year was paid for by ArtPop Street Gallery. "We now need a future sponsor to help defer those costs; we always try to help on year one with the costs if needed," Hickey says.

The mission of ArtPop fit naturally with the already vibrant arts community in Charleston.

“It felt right to be in Charleston,” Hickey says. “It’s a ripe arts community already, so why wouldn’t we be there?”

This year, however, brings a focused effort on brand management and donations instead of adding additional cities. Hickey is digging in and improving the structure that’s in place and expanding the reach of ArtPop to other forms of media. But right now, the effects are seen and felt almost immediately.

“What I found is that the by-product impacts a commuter’s day. And that impact has been phenomenal, so far. Beautifying the streets, making commutes more enjoyable, or maybe just inspiring people when they’ve had a bad day. Maybe they see some art and it changes their thinking. That’s not a small thing, that’s huge.”


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