Every major culture throughout history, has invested energy in making public art.
According to Fulbright Scholar and University of New Mexico professor Mark Childs, the major function of public art is to make a place special. Childs was the first of three speakers in the “Creative Spaces Speaker Series,” sponsored by the Community Vision Council Art and Culture Committee.
He addressed a crowd of 60 Aug. 15 that included Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, town staff, and council members Tony Simmons and Darryl Cotton.
In order to have a good government and a strong economy, we need a civil society, a complex overlapping set of social networks that help engender broad representation, a marketplace of ideas, social capital and creativity. Or what John Locke defined as that part of our collective lives that is neither market nor government.
According to Childs, there are several methods for developing this civil society, but the top two are civic spaces and “storied landscapes.” Public plazas and squares are places to see and be seen, to gather, to watch the sky.
Childs advocated for the development of a town square in Pagosa Springs and suggested the parking lot next to Tequila’s along the river as a location where the seeds of gathering already exist. “This parking lot is a great place for a square and you could include auditorium-style seating for people to sit and watch the river.”
Tell town’s story
He also suggested that the most important thing we can do is to tell the story of the community in our civic spaces and through our public art and events. One idea involves the local duck race sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. This is a story from our town. “Instead of ordering 1,000 rubber ducks from China, can you spend the same amount of money and have local children build boats or rafts and have a race?,” asked Childs.
“Public art is part of the infrastructure of your town,” Childs said. “Just as your town provides water, sewer, roads, it can provide art because art is literally how you make the road, the bridge, the power pole.”
Childs’ Power Point presentation showed manhole covers in Seattle designed as a map of the city, tree grates that identify the species and leaf shape, elaborate downspouts by Buster Simpson that are literally sculpture on the side of a building. “How can each thing be what it needs to be and add something more?” Childs asked. “How do these (manhole covers, buildings) work together to make a town?”
Childs even suggested a place to begin.
Focus on water
“Water is your key asset,” he said. “Take the theme of water as far as the collective imagination will go – streams, rivers, hot springs – how we collect water from the roofs to prevent flooding.” Even the underside of the Hot Springs Boulevard Bridge over the river is ideal for an art project.
When asked to clarify if he was suggesting that our community didn’t already have a town square, Childs responded: “You have a Main Street with missing teeth and blank walls. It could be stronger. A town square is different than a promenade.”
Create your ideas
But Childs was also conscientious in suggesting that the audience and town planners and management copy nothing from his lecture. “Take the ideas and make them your own,” he said.
When an audience member asked about gateways, Childs said he was not a big fan of gateways, as gateways. “The East side of town needs to tell a different story. It needs to say you are in Pagosa and it is cool. It needs to tell a story of the river and be a continuation of the Wolf Creek valley.”
Town Manager Mark Garcia added he has challenged the Art and Culture Committee to come up with ideas for the gateways.
Childs’ provocative ideas were followed Aug. 18 by the practical experience of Joe Napoleon, planning director for the City of Woodland Park, Colo., and Harold Stalf, director of the Grand Junction Downtown Development Authority.
“You have to have an ultimate goal,” Stalf said in his opening comments. “Be careful what you dream up. It will take ten to twenty years.” Stalf who has also served as town manager for Aspen and Crested Butte spoke from his experience.
Restaurants are anchors
In a downtown, restaurants are anchors and Stalf expressed his belief that downtown business associations and towns need to require that local businesses stay open on nights and weekends like shopping malls. Shopping malls were designed based upon the original concepts of downtowns. In Grand Junction, the major tenants downtown were once Sears and JC Penney.
Downtown Grand Junction features “the serpentine way” a wavy wall planted with trees that lines the main street. It was also the first city to implement an “art on the corner” plan. Today, Grand Junction has 100 sculptures on display; two-thirds of them are owned by the city or the DDA and one-third are rotating, temporary works.
One of Stalf’s most entertaining slides was of the art meters – an installation work of old parking meters painted and decorated by artists, now on display in downtown Grand Junction. Grand Junction is unique in that it has a symphony and a 50-year-old art center. Both struggle to survive financially, but Mesa County has been unsuccessful in attempts to implement a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District similar to the funding district on the Front Range.
Stalf believes a community should look at what it already has or could implement every day rather than focusing on big events. “Events are a killer,” he said. “Everyday people dine out, they go to movies or a nightclub.
“Planning is not about trails and sidewalks, it’s about a lifestyle,” Stalf said. “Your 500-pound gorilla is U.S. 160. You can implement narrowing and calming, but if I were you I’d try and get it rerouted.”
Retail is fragile
The challenge for downtown business owners is that retail is very fragile. Stalf pointed out the average income in Grand Junction from 1970 until today has remained flat, at around $26,000. But for individual business owners, from 1970 until today, that income has dropped from $26,000 to $18,000. “Chains kill these small stores.”
A Downtown Development Authority is a quasi-governmental agency funded by Tax Incremental Financing. In the first 20 years in Grand Junction, the DDA had a budget of about $10 million. They will have a budget of $12,000 in the next five years. In Woodland Park the DDA was created by a TIF bond referendum based on property taxes. This TIF provides $30 million for downtown development. A DDA cannot condemn property, but can purchase and renovate old buildings. In Grand Junction the DDA recently purchased a building that housed a strip club and they will be renovating the property.
“The pressures on beautiful places in Colorado are real,” added Napoleon. “The community has to really understand the vision.”
Woodland Park is a community of 7,200 permanent residents. Napoleon took the job as planning director in 1994 and all the streets were dirt and the downtown businesses were boarded up with plywood. But Woodland Park wanted to be more than a “potty stop.”
Build on heritage
“You have to maintain the identity, history and culture of your community. Never give it up. It has a value you can’t put a price on,” Napoleon iterated. “You have wonderful things here. Build on who you are. Understand your heritage and history and build on it.”
Napoleon acknowledged this is not an easy process because everyone has a different idea, but eventually you can come to a consensus and a plan. “Once we had a plan (in Woodland Park) the boards came off the buildings.” He suggested that Pagosa begin by creating an inventory of what we have and what we need.
“Art is not going to be your salvation. Art is one element,” Napoleon said. “But it is a very important element. It creates a feel and a look for a
community. We added art to our Master Plan and our Downtown Development Authority Plan.”
Napoleon advocated that art attracts a certain demographic that is appealing to a community. The value of art is intrinsic and is reflected in the people on the streets and in the schools. “Creating a sense of place is difficult for planners, but art can help,” Napoleon said.
The first thing Woodland Park did was to turn its old middle school into the Ute Pass Cultural Center. They had no money to buy art, but serendipitously a local artist donated a sculpture to the town. Today, Woodland Park has public art all over their town, but the town has only spent $200 to purchase one sculpture by a local artisan. The rest of the work has been donated and now developers and business owners try to outdo one another with a bigger and better sculpture. Even the new big box store being built in Woodland Park was required to purchase a $100,000 sculpture from a local artist.
Another thing they did was to move their library downtown and build a new library that today hosts 100,000 visits a year.
“The people who frequent libraries add to the value of your community.” Napoleon said.
As for graffiti, Napoleon said they have had no problem. “The art is for the people who live in the community. They respect it.”
Looking to the future, Napoleon unveiled the lifestyle center being built in downtown Woodland Park. The focus of this center is the Colorado Festival of World Theatre that will feature a 500-seat theatre, a small black box theatre, retail, lodging and residential units. This 21-acre village is a project of the DDA and the request for proposals suggested a village built on the heritage of Woodland Park, a heritage that includes mining, the West and the railroad. Their number one priority was to create a downtown for the people who live in Woodland Park, to capture the regional market and to capture the tourists who now just stop in Woodland Park for a convenience.
“What you’re trying to do here is nothing new,” Napoleon said. “Every community is doing this type of planning.”