When Fantasy Morphs Into Reality

You just have to read this recent piece on the ArtsPlace America website about a fictitious marketing campaign created as a graduate school thesis project that became reality.

Peter Svarzbein’s thesis project had residents of El Paso, TX excited about the return of a trolley system that went defunct about 45 years ago.

….part performance art, part guerrilla marketing, part visual art installation, and part fake advertising campaign. The project began with a series of wheatpaste posters advertising the return of the El Paso-Juárez streetcar, and continued with the deployment of Alex the Trolley Conductor, a new mascot and spokesperson for the alleged new service. Alex appeared at Comic Cons, public parks, conferences, and other public spaces to promote the return of the streetcar, while additional advertisements appeared across El Paso, sparking curiosity and excitement for the assumed real project.

Eventually, Svarzbein admitted that the project was a graduate thesis masquerading as a streetcar launch,…

But when Svarzbein heard the city of El Paso was preparing to sell the art deco trolley cars, he rallied community support for the restoration of the trolley cars and passenger service. His initiative gained the support of both the city and state department of transportation, garnering a $97 million grant to help get the cars running again.

I love what happened next,

In one of the most surprising twists in this long tale, shortly after this funding was awarded, he rode the wave of public support for the once-fictional project to win a seat on El Paso’s City Council. He is now the City Representative for District 1, and an artist is now at the table.

In his remarks about the creativity he employed to rally support for the restoration, Svarzbein reflected on the role of an artist in the community,

“there is a sort of responsibility that artists have to imagine and speak about a future that may not be able to be voiced by a large amount of people in the present. I felt that sort of responsibility. If I couldn’t change the debate, at least I could sort of write a love letter to the place that raised me.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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