The Unexpected

words: Claire Kolberg
Images: courtesy Mike Bell and Martin Herlacher
September is almost here and with that brings The Unexpected curated by JustKids. For the second year in a row, global eyes will be on Fort Smith, Arkansas for ten days as we bring some of the most world-renowned artists to create innovative works in downtown. Highlights for this year’s event, taking place September 2-11, include a collaborative mural between Northside and Southside High Schools and art that will surprise in both location and execution.

When first planning The Unexpected, we were curious what role art could play in economic development and recasting the image of our city. The impact of The Unexpected is local and global. Along with each artist who visits Fort Smith comes their social media following in the thousands. Multiply that by seven artists, and it’s close to a million touches each time an artist posts about The Unexpected. During 2015’s project our estimated international reach was two million, and we maintain an approximate reach of 15,000 + touches weekly via our own media. By creating an event that was public, we removed any barriers to art to increase our impact. Anyone can enjoy The Unexpected at any time, and we provide an experience that allows both artist and spectator to interact, creating a dynamic exchange.

Research shows that investments in the arts boost a community’s quality of life, fostering education, innovation and more, and these are the cornerstones for recruiting, attracting and retaining people. The Unexpected is proud to partner with area schools. For example, Spring Break 2016 saw the first-ever Future School of Fort Smith Spring Break App Academy where local high school students created and designed the platform on which The Unexpected mobile app is built.

This past spring, The Unexpected expanded programming to include an artist-in-residency program featuring Ana Maria, a returning artist from 2015. Our guiding question was simple: how could our community inspire Ana Maria, and in turn, how could she inspire us? Ana Maria took a painting class and guest lectured at UAFS providing an opportunity for both artist and student alike to learn from each other. She completed her mural at Tenth and Rogers, bringing on UAFS art students as her artist assistants. We also invited artist Li-Hill to complete an immersive and interactive installation on the ground floor of the newly remodeled Friedman–Mincer building in downtown Fort Smith. We are currently in planning for Spring 2017’s artist residency program.

The continued activity downtown brings increased foot-traffic for the avenue, restaurants, storefronts and more. In 2010, American’s for the Arts determined an individual in Arkansas spent approximately forty dollars on themselves per art and culture event. This means each person who visits The Unexpected contributes to the Fort Smith economy. The more a community supports and creates a place for arts and culture, the more the economy will support new revenue for the city, job creation and overall quality of life. A vibrant community is a community that not only survives but thrives. The building walls are the canvas on which we are painting our future.

Fort Smith is seeing renewed growth and vitality. Downtown merchants have, in partnership with 64.6 Downtown, created a downtown merchants association, and there are several new storefronts on Garrison Avenue. The Unexpected is proud to be one of the catalysts propelling a vibrant and innovative creative economy.

For more information about this year’s artists please visit and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram at and @UnexpectedFS or email us at


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