This story first appeared in the Cowboy State Daily
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By Joshua Wood, Tourism and Business Journalist
Measuring the direct economic benefits of public art can be difficult. For those who support these programs, the indirect benefits are well worth it.
Instilling pride in the community is one of the biggest investments, said Laura McDermit, director of the Laramie Public Art Coalition.
The organization is supported by 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. “Its pride of place, excitement and livability of 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 foster.
“One of the best examples is our city manager,” said Kim Love, owner of Sheridan Media. “When he considered locating here, he was impressed with the sculpture program and said that’s why he wanted to be in Sheridan. He made a statement, on behalf of the community, about how he felt about his community.”
The Sheridan Public Art Committee was formed in 2001 by then-Mayor Jim Wilson. In Gillette, a similar program, the Mayor’s Art Council, was created in 2003. Both programs, each city has more than 120 bronze sculptures that line 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 fee or stipend to borrow their sculpture, during which time the piece is available for purchase by the public.
After each year, the city purchases at least one sculpture for the collection through fundraising from private donors. Gillette has sold more than 100 sculptures in the past 15 years through this program.
“People who are visiting Gillette are amazed at how many pieces of art we have in and around Campbell County that are part of the Mayor’s Art Council,” said Stephanie Murray, manager of community engagement for Visit Gillette. “They’re amazed at how many people actually donate art to the city to keep it here and for people to enjoy.”
Community pride through investment in public art is the sole 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, in addition to being a member of the Platte Valley Arts Council and project coordinator for the Platte Valley Public Art Project, is a former CEO of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“When they were evaluating communities to move more than one person, we’ve been told that (public art) was a deciding factor,” Crimmins said. “I heard it quite a bit at 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 measure specifically the dollar amount in terms of dollars added to a community that public art brings, but it’s definitely a draw for tourists,” said Rachel Clifton, deputy director of the Wyoming Arts Council, who 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.
“That leads to spending dollars to go shopping or dining,” 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 a little 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,” he said. Love.
Because this money can be difficult to trace back to public art, it can also make it difficult to apply for grants to support public art. Therefore, project coordinators sometimes have to be creative.
This is the case of the Bossert collective in Lander when they applied for the Fremont County MOVE (Making Opportunity for a Viable Economy) grant. All projects supported by the Bossert Collective are subsidized.
“The way I wrote this grant and the way I presented it to the curators was when people see public art as coming to a halt,” said Stacy Stebner, project coordinator and co-founder of the Bossert Collective. “I can’t guarantee because we put a giant mural on the wall that every business will see a $10,000 increase every year. It’s very hard to quantify the exact impact.”
Without concrete numbers, Stebner looked to other western cities that had invested in public art like Taos, New Mexico, and Lakewood, Colorado.
“It has absolutely transformed these downtown spaces,” Stebner said. “There are more people stopping by, more businesses being able to stay, more businesses moving in, fewer empty storefronts, and they attribute that to this investment in public art.”
Support your local artist
One economic aspect of public art that most people might not think about, Clifton said, is how it benefits local artists. It’s one of the reasons he supports more funding for public art programs.
“I am always a strong advocate for more funding for public art. I think it’s a great way for communities to invest economically 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 for help beautify and improve their community.”
Supporting local artists is exactly what the Platte Valley Arts Council is doing with its public art project featuring six local artists, though that may not have been the original intent.
“The way we structured this was to try to fit on a very small board and make sure we could manage 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.” An oversized comic book panel will be Palen’s contribution to the project. Another artist, Jamie Waugh, will pay tribute to the late cowboy poet Chuck Larsen.
Representation of the underrepresented
Public art advocates say supporting local artists also means giving a platform and a voice to a demographic that may feel underrepresented in their community. This is the case of the Bossert Collective and its current project with two recipients of the Native Art Fellowship of the Wyoming Arts Council.
Colleen Friday, who is Northern Arapaho, and Talysa Abeyta, who is Eastern Shoshone, are painting a mural next to the Lander Bake Shop with the help of another artist, Adrienne Vetter. Friday has collaborated on murals for the Laramie Public Art Coalition and is combining her artistic style with Abeyta’s for the Lander mural.
Friday has a master’s degree in rangeland ecology that found its way onto the mural through a painting of a fire mallow, one of the first plants to grow after a wildfire. Abeyta has a background in ledger art, which places modern images on historical book paper.
“They designed the mural to look like a giant piece of ledger art, combining its two elements,” Stebner said. “So it’s got the fireweed and then the image of Talysa is this really huge buffalo running at you from the wall.”
The mural Friday and Abeyta are painting are quite different from the bronzes seen in 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 at all here in Lander,” Stebner said. “Driving through Lander, you would have no idea that 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 are really looking to public art as a way to not only engage Native artists and people of color, but also make that artwork directly reflect their lived experiences,” Clifton said . “It really gives a voice to the artist and to the people who live in this 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. In Saratoga and Camp, we have an underserved population,” Crimmins said. “There aren’t a lot of arts and cultural opportunities here, so that’s why the (Platte Valley) arts council exists to try to bring those opportunities.”
Removing barriers to more random 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, depending on its location in business and commercial districts.
“We like to think it’s for everyone and it’s because it’s public, but it’s also been placed in a specific area to generate commercial 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 for a community.
“It’s also providing 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 contributes to a quality of life.”
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