This story first appeared in the Cowboy State Daily
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By Joshua Wood, tourism/business reporter
Measuring the direct economic benefits of public art can be difficult. For those who support these programs, the indirect benefits are well worth the cost.
Fostering community pride is one of the biggest investments, said Laura McDermit, director of the Laramie Public Art Coalition.
The organization is supported through a combination of public funds such as 5th 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,” McDermit said. “Their pride of place, their excitement and vibrancy about a place translates into someone wanting to come visit here.”
A common theme among communities and organizations that support public art programs is the sense of community pride that the programs encourage.
“One of the best examples is our city manager,” said Kim Love, owner of Sheridan Media. “When he was thinking about coming here, he was impressed with 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.”
Sheridan’s public art committee was formed in 2001 by then-mayor Jim Wilson. In Gillette, a similar program, the Mayor’s Art Council, was formed in 2003. Because of both programs, each city has more than 120 bronze sculptures lining the streets.
Each year, up to eight sculptures are loaned to the permanent collection for 12 months. Both cities each use a similar program that pays artists a royalty or salary to borrow their sculpture, during which 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 in the past 15 years through this program.
“People who are visitors to Gillette are amazed at how much artwork we have in and around Campbell County that is part of the Mayor’s Art Council,” said Stephanie Murray, Community Engagement Manager for Visit Gillette. “They’re amazed at how many people donate art back to the city to be saved here and for people to enjoy.”
Community pride through investing in public art is the only reason McDermit, who is originally from Pittsburgh, and her husband moved to Laramie.
“We needed to be in a space that was excited about artwork and new and interesting things happening,” McDermit said. “We definitely saw that in Laramie.”
According to Stacy Crimmins, studies show that arts and culture are among the top reasons someone moves to a community. Crimmins, along with being a member of the Platte Valley Arts Council and project coordinator of the Platte Valley Public Art Project, is a former CEO of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve been told by more than one person when they were evaluating communities to relocate to, that (public art) was a deciding factor,” Crimmins said. “I have heard very little of this in the chamber of commerce.”
While the success of tourist attractions and events can be measured through lodging demand and sales taxes, public art is more difficult to track through traditional means.
“It’s hard to specifically measure the dollar amount in terms of dollars added to a community that brings public art, but it’s definitely a draw for tourists,” said Rachel Clifton, assistant director of the Wyoming Arts Council, which lives in Laramie.
Downtown Laramie is filled with colorful murals by a variety of artists. These murals, Clifton said, encourage travelers to stop and explore the community.
“It leads to spending dollars to go shopping or have lunch,” Clifton said.
Love believes the public art program has had a positive effect on tourism in Sheridan. While the bronze sculptures are purchased with the help of private donations, the City of Sheridan supports the program through operating expenses.
“It’s kind of hard to measure because we’re not like a museum where you can count the people coming through the front door, but just look at the number of people who are posing with the sculptures and stopping to admire them,” Love said.
Because that money can be hard to come by in public art, it can make it difficult to apply for grants to support public art as well. So project coordinators sometimes have to be creative.
Such is the case with the Bossert Collective in Lander when they applied for Fremont County’s MOVE (Making Opportunity for a Viable Economy) grant. All projects supported by the Bossert Collective are funded by grants.
“The way I wrote that grant and the way I pitched it to the commissioners was when people see public art they stop,” said Stacy Stebner, project coordinator and co-founder of the Bossert Collective. “I can’t guarantee that because we put a giant mural on the wall that every business will see an increase of $10,000 every year. It’s really hard to quantify the exact impact.”
Without hard numbers, Stebner looked to other cities in the West that had invested in public art like Taos, New Mexico, and Lakewood, Colorado.
“It has absolutely transformed these spaces downtown,” Stebner said. “There are more people stopping by, there are more businesses that are able to stay, there are more businesses that are moving, there are fewer empty storefronts, and they’re attributing that to the 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. It’s one of the reasons 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 that 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, though that may not have been the original intent.
“The way we structured this was to try to put a very small table and make sure we could afford 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 one-panel comic Stampede. A large-scale 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.
Representation of the Unrepresented
Public art advocates say supporting local artists also means giving a platform and voice to a demographic that may feel underrepresented in their community. Such is the case with the Bossert Collective and its current project with two Wyoming Arts Council Native Art Fellowship recipients.
Colleen Friday, who is Northern Arapaho, and Talysa Abeyta, who is Eastern Shoshone, are painting a mural on the side of the Lander Bake Shop with the help of another artist, Adrienne Vetter. Friday has contributed murals for the Laramie Public Art Coalition and is combining her artistic style with Abeyta’s for the mural in Lander.
Friday has a Master’s Degree in Rangeland Ecology, which has found its way into the mural through a painting of a fireweed, one of the first plants to grow after a fire. Abeyta has a background in book art, which puts modern images on historic book paper.
“They designed the mural to look like a giant piece of book art, combining both of their elements,” Stebner said. “So she has the fire herb and then the image of Talysa is this really big buffalo that’s running at you from the wall.”
The mural painted by Friday and Abeyta are quite different from the bronzes seen at Lander. Stebner said there was 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 are 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 really look at public art as a way to not only employ local artists and people of color, but also to have those artworks that then directly reflect their experiences of lived,” Clifton said. “It really gives a voice to the artist and the people who live in that community.”
Art for everyone
According to Crimmins, an important feature of public art is its accessibility.
“This means that families can access art without any barriers. In Saratoga and Encampment, we have an underserved population,” Crimmins said. “There aren’t a lot of arts and cultural opportunities here, so why the (Platte Valley) arts council exists is to try to bring those opportunities.”
Removing 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 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 it’s for everyone and that’s because it’s public, but it’s also set up in a specific area to generate business dollars,” Stebner said. “Not everyone in our community has the ability to stop at these places and spend money at these places.”
Stebner said it’s important to look beyond the economic benefit public art can have on a community.
“It’s also providing a visual stimulus and something really nice to look at, even if people aren’t going to stop and there’s not going to be an economic impact,” Stebner said. “It still contributes to the quality of life.”
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