Special to The PREVIEW, Aug. 4, 2005
Want to buy a six-foot-tall, forton puma?
Twenty-six of the 29 pumas from the San Juan Mountains Association “Pumas on Parade” will be auctioned online starting Aug. 15. Until then, puma sightings around Pagosa include the Visitor’s Center at the Chamber of Commerce, the Pagosa Springs Community Center and Town Hall.
Originally designed as a fund-raiser for the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), to bolster tourism, support local artists and to enhance the public awareness of caring for our natural resources, “Pumas on Parade” has become a financial drain for the nonprofit organization.
The mission of SJMA is to enhance personal and community stewardship of natural, cultural and heritage resources on public lands in southwest Colorado through education, interpretation, information and participation.
SJMA volunteers build trails, monitor cultural sites and ruins, host field seminars, serve as public land ambassadors, lead naturalist hikes and host the Clean Forest Hunter Information program and the Wilderness Information Specialists program – both providing experts in backcountry and wilderness survival to educate hunters and hikers alike of the importance of “leaving no trace.”
With more than 500 volunteers, SJMA development director Felicity Broennan, believed her idea to pattern a public art project, based on the highly successful “Painted Ponies,” in New Mexico, would be easy.
The native of Santa Fe consulted with Ponies executive director Rod Barker and other cities around the country that have launched successful public art programs such as this – cows in Chicago, orcas in Vancouver, trout in San Luis Obispo, horses in Aiken, S.C. and alpine swine in Grand Junction. In Aiken, 30 horses were sponsored by local businesses based on the concept alone. The business sponsorships paid to have each horse sculpture-cast and provided a stipend for the artists to design, decorate or embellish the sculpture.
“I thought my volunteers would help out, but they want to hike, monitor and build trails, not throw parties, do public relations and drive sculptures around,” Broennan said.
And business sponsorship didn’t work quite so well in Southwest Colorado as it did in Aiken. “We really overestimated the capability of the business community,” Broennan said. “This is a very sophisticated project and people didn’t get the value of what this is and what it can do for the community.”
The original program concept was to bring communities together, to bring tourists to the area to see the pumas, to increase visibility, traffic and cash flow, to form partnerships and alliances among businesses, the arts community and public land agencies, to celebrate the centennial of the San Juan National Forest and ultimately, to raise money for SJMA’s ongoing educational outreach and heighten the visibility and effectiveness of SJMA as an organization.
The pumas were unveiled on the Fourth of July and in the past few weeks have been put on display in locations from Cortez to Pagosa Springs, Telluride to Durango. To date, three pumas have been sold. Most businesses don’t see the benefit of paying $3,000-$10,000 to have a six-foot tall, five-foot long puma taking up space.
This is the height of tourist season in southwest Colorado and businesses are booked all summer. As Broennan bemoaned, a bank in Cortez didn’t understand the concept and felt it was more important to give $10,000 to resurrect the local rodeo than buy a puma for which they would have to find a permanent home, insure against vandalism and maintain. And people who frequently give $5,000 to Kiwanis, felt that was too much money for Pumas on Parade.
“We have 2.2 million visitors to our public lands every year,” Broennan said. “The businesses didn’t understand that they could support tourism and the stewardship of public land.”
The problems are multifaceted.
“Public land is not that sexy,” Broennan said. “SJMA is not a well-known organization. This is the biggest fund-raiser we’ve undertaken. Music in the Mountains would have had a different response.”
Maybe, maybe not.
“None of us recognized what we were taking on,” Broennan admitted.
In 2004, Broennan went to work for SJMA as their program director. She had been on the job just two weeks when the call for grant applications from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Forest Service for a joint Arts and Rural Community Assistance Initiative came across her desk. This special grant program supports arts-based rural community development projects utilizing the arts as an economic and community development tool, and as a steward of natural resources.
While SJMA executive director, Susan Bryson and the board of directors embraced the proposal, no one evaluated the organization’s readiness to take on a project of this magnitude from a community perspective. No one had the artistic experience to handle complicated molds and sculptural casting. No one thought about hiring a public relations expert to insure the major media exposure that other public art events such as this have garnered.
They focused their time and energy on choosing an appropriate animal, considering lynx, bear and even a giant pine beetle. But they chose the mountain lion for its powerful aesthetic and symbolism. “This elusive predator, a native to the Four Corners, is integral to our ecosystem and arguably the most majestic animal on our lands. Cautious and cagey, the graceful puma embodies the beauty of nature, while epitomizing the intense conflicts triggered by human-wildlife proximity,” Broennan writes on the SJMA Web site.
Twenty-nine artists were promised a stipend of $500 for materials to enhance their puma. Many were surprised at the size of the sculpture. Many spent more than 500 hours and thousands of dollars to create their original work of art. Most have not received their $500. Some artists have offered to donate their stipend to the cause.
“Pumas on Parade has been a capital intensive project. We are trying to make our payroll,” Broennan said. “Layoffs are not okay.”
Some artists have questioned why it’s okay for SJMA staff to get paid when the artist is already receiving a mere token for their time and effort.
“We feel horrible,” Broennan said. “The hardest phone call I had to make was to tell the artists we didn’t have money to pay them and that we were in breach of contract. It’s the hardest thing in the whole world.”
Broennan feels lucky to have worked with such terrific artists and believes the finished products speak for themselves. They are each unique and beautiful. “I have worked with the most phenomenal artists,” Broennan said. “Other communities had challenges with artists. We didn’t.
“And $500 doesn’t even come close to what they deserve,” Broennan added. “They should get $1,000, but that’s almost $30,000. All of this was predicated to bringing in $90,000 of business sponsors.”
They have only raised one-third of that amount.
What about the original $10,000 NEA grant?
“I didn’t know how much this would cost when I wrote the grant,” Broennan admits. “It was my naivete about the art world.”
Broennan thought artists might donate their mold or create an original sculpture to be used as the form for each puma. In most cities the artwork is created specifically for the project. Painted Ponies had Santa Fe sculptor Star Lianna York create two original horse sculptures, one standing one running, for the project. Broennan chose an existing sculpture by Loveland artist Rosetta. Rosetta’s “On the Alert,” is of a mountain lion, a cougar, a puma, frozen mid-stride, ever alert to the slightest sound or movement.
Rosetta’s original sculpture was limited to an edition of eight and the mold was unusable. A new mold had to be created. The NEA funds covered Rosetta’s fee and the creation of a ne
w mold by a second artist in Loveland. Then each puma had to be hand cast by a third pair of artists. SJMA has picked up the tab for casting, shipping and crating.
Broennan still believes this is a viable project.
“I still feel honored. I still think it’s the right animal. I’m proud that we were able to give each artist something of this stature. These are handmade sculptures. They are not hot fiberglass poured. Each is its own unique work of art from start to finish.”
Pagosa Springs artists Paula Bain and Kathy Steventon are still supportive of the project, despite all the problems.
“I think it was a great idea, but publicity is absolutely essential,” said Bain, whose puma is on display at Town Hall. “It can’t survive without this. Everyone worked very hard and it turned out great.”
“I suspect it can turn around,” Steventon added. “Most of the artwork is beautiful, but marketing is a mess. Publicity costs lots of money and where is this coming from?”
Steventon, whose puma is on display at the community center, found the project to be enriching on many levels: personally, she is proud of her work; socially, she enjoyed working and getting to know other artists; philanthropically, she felt she was supporting a worthy cause.
“It really made me realize how difficult it is for nonprofit organizations to get the support that they shouldn’t have to ask for,” Steventon said. “Many in the community can support this and they haven’t come forward.”
Her concerns are that SJMA is not using the resources available in the community to help this project succeed. “They didn’t handle this professionally. There didn’t seem to be a strategy. Everything was a crisis and reaction.”
“Every project has a risk,” Broennan said. “I still believe in this model. It will teach people about mountain lions, it is beautifying to the community and I’ve loved working with the artists and the business community. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Broennan added she would get the capital up front and take a more cautious route. She would start smaller and would know what is involved in the process. She would know what mold they were going to use and exactly how much it would cost to cast. She would hire a public relations expert. She would raise funds for something more appealing than the stewardship of public lands where the community falsely believes their tax dollars pay for upkeep and maintenance. She would allow two years for completion of the project and the ability to have the sculptures on display. She would have a track record of getting her board of directors to invest time and money in the project. She would have a larger staff. She would want a more connected, more active board.
“All these things have added up to NOT the plan.”
Broennan hopes the online auction, sponsored by Alpine National Bank, will be a success. The auction will begin Aug. 15 at http://www.sjma.org. SJMA is looking for more people like Dick and Connie Imig of Durango Coca Cola who purchased a puma and donated it to the City of Durango for their permanent collection.
“They see it as the cat’s meow,” Broennan said with straight face.
For more information on Pumas on Parade, contact Broennan at the San Juan Mountains Association, (970) 385-1256 or log on to http://www.sjma.org.