Art Advocates: An investment in public art is an investment in community

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By Joshua Wood, Travel/Business Reporter
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Measuring the direct economic benefits of public art can be difficult. For those who support these programs, the indirect benefits are well worth the costs.

Instilling community pride is one of the greatest investments, said Laura McDermitt, director of the Laramie Public Art Coalition.

The organization is supported through a combination of public funds such as 5-penny sales tax revenue from the City of Laramie and Albany County and private donors.

“It’s really an investment in the community and the people who live there,” McDermitt said. “Their pride of place, their excitement and livability of place means someone wants to come here.”

Community pride

A common theme among communities and organizations supporting public art programs is the sense of community pride that the programs foster.

“One of the best examples is our city administrator,” said Kim Love, owner of Sheridan Media. “When he was considering settling here, he was impressed by the sculpture program and said that’s why he wanted to be at Sheridan. It made a statement from the community about how they felt about their community.

The Sheridan Public Art Committee was created in 2001 by then-Mayor Jim Wilson. In Gillette, a similar program, the Mayor’s Arts Council, was formed in 2003. Because of the two programs, each city has more than 120 bronze sculptures located in the streets.

Each year up to eight sculptures are loaned to the permanent collection for 12 months. Both cities each operate a similar program that pays artists a fee or stipend to borrow their sculpture, during which time the work is available for purchase by the public.

After each year, at least one sculpture is purchased by the city for the collection through fundraising from private donors. At Gillette, more than 100 sculptures have been sold over the past 15 years through this program.

“People who are visitors to Gillette are amazed at how much art we have in and around Campbell County that is part of the Mayor’s Arts Council,” said Stephanie Murray, community engagement manager for Visit Gillette. “They’re amazed at how many people actually donate art back to the city to be saved here for people to enjoy.”

Community pride through investing in public art is the sole reason McDermitt, a Pittsburgh native, and her husband moved to Laramie.

“We needed to be in a space that was excited about artwork and new and interesting things happening,” McDermitt said. “We definitely saw that in Laramie.”

According to Stacey Crimmins, studies show that arts and culture are among the top reasons someone moves to a community. In addition to being a member of the Platte Valley Arts Council and coordinator of the Platte Valley Public Art Project, Crimmins is also the former CEO of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“When they were evaluating communities to move to, we were told by more than one person that (public art) was a deciding factor,” Crimmins said. “I’ve heard that quite often in the Chamber of Commerce.”

Economic development

While the success of tourist attractions and events can be measured by demand for lodging and sales taxes, public art is more difficult to track through traditional means.

“It’s hard to put a specific dollar amount in terms of added dollars to a community that public art brings, but it’s definitely a tourist attraction,” said Rachel Clifton, assistant director of the Wyoming Arts Council, who lives in Laramie .

Downtown Laramie is filled with colorful murals by various artists. Those murals, Clifton said, encourage travelers to stop and explore the community.

“It leads to spending dollars on shopping or lunch,” Clifton said.

Love believes the public art program has had a positive effect on tourism in Sheridan. While the bronze sculptures are purchased using private donations, the City of Sheridan supports the program through operating expenses.

“It’s hard to measure because we’re not like a museum where you can count the people who come through the front door, you just look at the number of people who pose with sculptures and stop to admire them,” Love said.

Because this money can be difficult to trace to public art, it can also make it difficult to apply for grants to support public art. So project coordinators sometimes have to be creative.

Such is the case with the Bossert Collective in Lander when they apply for a Fremont County MOVE (Creating an Opportunity for a Viable Economy) grant. All projects supported by Bossert Collective are funded for free.

“The way I wrote this grant and the way I presented it to the commissioners was that when people see public art, they stop,” said Stacey Stebner, project coordinator and co-founder of the Bossert Collective. “I can’t guarantee that because we put a huge mural on the wall that every business will see a $10,000 increase every year. It’s really hard to quantify the exact impact.”

Without hard numbers, Stebner looked to other Western cities that have invested in public art, such as Taos, New Mexico, and Lakewood, Colorado.

“It completely transforms these central spaces,” Stebner said. “There are more people stopping by, there are more businesses that can stay, there are more businesses moving in, there are fewer empty storefronts, and they attribute it to this investment in public art.”

Support your local artist

One economic aspect of public art that most people may not think about, Clifton said, is how it benefits local artists. That’s one reason she supports more funding for public art programs.

“I am always a strong supporter of more funding for public art. I think it’s a great way for communities to invest financially and culturally in their communities and support their local artists,” Clifton said. “You’re paying the people who live and work in this community a living wage to help beautify and improve their community.”

Supporting local artists is exactly what the Platte Valley Arts Council is doing with its public art project using six local artists, although that may not have been the original intent.

“The way we structured this was to try to mount a very small board and make sure we could handle what we were doing,” Crimmins said. “We chose them (the artists) based on the fact that we knew their work.”

One of the artists is the late Jerry Palen, creator of the syndicated one-panel comic strip Stampede. A large comic panel will be Palen’s contribution to the project. Another artist, Jamie Waugh, will create a tribute to the late cowboy poet Chuck Larsen.

Representing the underrepresented

Public art advocates say supporting local artists also means giving a platform and a voice to demographic groups that may feel underrepresented in their community. Such is the case with the Bossert Collective and its current project with two recipients of the Wyoming Arts Council Native Art Fellowship.

Colleen Friday, who is Northern Arapaho, and Talisa Abeyta, who is Eastern Shoshone, paint a mural on the side of the Lander Bake Shop with the help of another artist, Adrienne Vetter. Friday has contributed murals to the Laramie Public Art Coalition and combined her artistic style with Abeyta’s for the Lander mural.

Friday has a master’s degree in rangeland ecology, which found its way into the mural through a painting of fireweed, one of the first plants to grow after a forest fire. Abeyta has a background in ledger art, which places modern images on historic ledger paper.

“They designed the mural to look like one huge piece of art in the ledger, combining both elements,” Stebner said. “So there’s the fire grass and then Talisa’s image is this really huge buffalo running at you from the wall.”

The mural painted by Friday and Abeyta is quite different from the bronze seen at Lander. Stebner said there’s a reason for that.

“We have this great little community that borders the Wind River Indian Reservation, a community of 50,000 Native Americans, and it’s really not represented here in Lander at all,” Stebner said. “Driving through Lander, you’d have no idea the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes were right there.”

Friday and Abeyta’s mural is an example of how public art can be used to make a statement, Clifton said.

“Lander, in particular, and other communities are really looking at public art as a way to not only employ local artists and people of color, but also have those artworks directly reflect their lived experiences,” Clifton said. “It really gives voice to the artist and the people living in that community.”

Art for everyone

According to Crimmins, an important characteristic of public art is its accessibility.

“This means that families can access art without any barriers. We have an underserved population in Saratoga and Encampment,” Crimmins said. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for arts and culture here, so that’s why the (Platte Valley) Arts Council exists to try to provide those opportunities.”

Removing the barriers to more chance encounters with art makes those experiences more special, Clifton said.

“It helps soften the edges a little bit and can help create encounters with art on people’s own terms,” ​​Clifton said.

There may still be some barriers between members of the public and public art, Stegner said, based on its location in business and commercial districts.

“We like to think of it as everybody, and that’s because it’s public, but it’s also put in a certain area to generate business dollars,” Stebner said. “Not everyone in our community has the capacity to stop at these places and spend money at these places.”

Stebner said it’s important to look beyond the economic benefit that public art can have on a community.

“It also provides some visual stimulation and something really beautiful to look at, even if people aren’t going to stop and it’s not going to have an economic impact,” Stebner said. “It still adds to the quality of life.”

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