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Art for the Masses: Denver's Public Art Program Turns 25

"I See What You Mean" aka Blue Bear is a piece of public art at the Colorado Convention Center.

One of the 14th Street overlays - Buffalo Billís Wild West show as performed at the Denver Performing Arts Center.

There are 23 telescope-type overlays on 14th Street.

Pedestrians listen to Jim Green's Sound Walk.

Sustainability Park has helped revitalize an underdeveloped community.

If you're adamantly opposed to PDAs -- that's public displays of art, not affection -- you've probably landed in the wrong city. With a current collection of about 330 public pieces, some commissioned on the taxpayer's dime, others privately funded, Denver's amassed approximately three-fourths the amount of public art lining New York's streets, and that's only the beginning of the story.
"Any great city supports art culture," says  Denver Arts & Venues Public Art Program Manager Michael Chavez. "When you think of the great cities of the world -- Rome, London, New York -- the first thing that comes to mind is what that city offers culturally." 
 
In Denver proper, you'll find roughly 330 public pieces, some, like City Park's bronze sculptures, which were donated to the city, others privately funded by organizations like the Regional Transportation District (RTD) or publicly funded by taxpayers through the Public Art Fund.  
 
This fund, overseen by Chavez at Art & Venues, was established in 1988 under then-Mayor Federico Peña whose successor, Mayor Wellington Webb, enacted the executive order in 1991. 
 
The resulting ordinance directs one percent of any capital improvement project over $1 million dollars to the inclusion of public art. Once it's determined a project falls within the scope of this Public Art Fund, Chavez and his team select an artist (or artists) through a highly refined process involving community selection panels comprised of experts and public officials. 
 
Keeping it local is important. Well over half of commissioned artists have been residents. And even when an artist isn't Denver-based, much of the money usually flows back into our local economy because nonresident artists typically use local fabricators, contractors and suppliers. 
 
"Some people don't get it," says Lawrence Argent, Sculpture and Digital Fabrication Professor at the University of Denver and mastermind behind the Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center (technically titled I See What You Mean). "In Colorado, we have a lot of public money allocated toward art, and it should be there."  
 
Pennsylvania artist Wes Heiss of Walczak & Heiss, one of two artists responsible for the new Fourteentth Street Overlay, agrees Denver is an exciting place for public art. "As an artist applying around the county, I've been impressed with Denver's public art projects and how well they're curated." 
 
With hundreds of public pieces and new projects going up constantly, it's hard to keep track of it all. Here's what's happening with public art in Denver.Pedestrians listen to Jim Green's Sound Walk.
 
Union Station
 
RTD is in the midst of a massive reconstruction project that will transform historic Union Station into a multimodal transportation hub. The project is unique in that, despite its $500 million budget, the accompanying public art won't come from the Public Art Fund. 
 
Since Union Station sits on entirely private and RTD-owned land, it has its own public art program and the work will be part of RTD's collection and not Denver's. 
 
The Denver Union Station Project Authority (DUSPA), the organization responsible for financing, acquiring, and maintaining development of the Union Station project, has $500,000 dollars set aside for public art. DUSPA asked Art & Venues to shepherd the artist selection process, which meant choosing from 326 artists who put in bids. 
 
A finalist should be announced early September. Chavez estimates it'll probably be early 2014 before installation begins. While most details are iffy, the art's location isn't. Because the Wynkoop Brewery side of Union Station is already well-designed, DUSPA has tabbed the west side for this installation.
 
Denver International Airport
 
DIA's South Terminal Redevelopment Project (STRP), which will institute a public transit center for receiving trains from Union Station, will feature some groundbreaking publicly funded art. 
 
Kendall Peterson, Public Art Program Manager for the project, reports that about $5 million will be spent on art. Three artists have been selected to install major pieces, including local artist Patrick Marold, who was commissioned to create a work travelers pass when they arrive at the airport.
 
"Patrick's done a few downtown projects, but this is his biggest commission yet," says Peterson. In her opinion, Marold is "poised to become the next big thing."
 
His outdoor installation will be a landscape-based sculpture. "They revealed a layer of the earth here by cutting into it," Marold says of the newly exposed soil and clay. "It feels like a subtractive space."
 
As far as the shape, Marold's working with concentric circles, envisioning a spherical presence. "It's so preliminary though, I don't know where I'll be next week," says Marold. The final design should be unveiled to the public this fall, likely November. Preliminary models were on display at Goodwin Fine Arts in mid-July. 
 
The space Marold's working with includes almost eight football fields of area; his budget is roughly $1.5 million. Big projects like this, the artist reminds, aren't that unusual internationally. 
 
Marold's sculpture will be accompanied by two other pieces: a light and video exhibit by a Parisian team led by Yann Kersalé and a kinetic work by Ned Kahn.
 
Kersalé's project will envelop escalators and train canopies. Internationally-acclaimed and California-based, Kahn is known for crafting massive, viewer-friendly sculptures typically comprised of aluminum and moving without electrical power. His work at DIA will be housed in the plaza connecting the existing Jefferson terminal with the new Westin hotel.    
 
Westin refuses to be left out of the art. "They'll do their own showcase of local artists," Peterson says. "They will supply the art; it won't be publicly funded."
 
Mustang (a.k.a. "Bluecifer") 
 
It's impossible to mention the airport without also mentioning Mustang, that famous (or infamous) fiberglass bucking beast with neon eyes ablaze. Created by American sculptor Luis Jimenez, the horse has been sparking robust conversation since its completion in 2008  -- which the sculptor never heard because he was killed by his work-in-progress in 2006. 
 
While there have been rumors about moving or removing Mustang, Chavez squashes them. "There are no plans to move the Mustang," he says. "None of the rumors are true; in fact, there's never been any discussion about it on a city level." What's more, recent hype about Jimenez's contract expiring after five years (reached last February) is also false, according to Chavez. 
 
"Mustang is easily the most talked-about work of art around," Chavez continues. "It's a signature work by an important American artist, to suggest we move it because some people don't like it," Chavez trails off. "A lot of people assume everyone loves the bear, but that isn't the case either."  
 
I See What You Mean (a.k.a. "The Big Blue Bear")
 
The iconic sculpture's color is as happenstance as its Aussie-turned-Denverite creator's residency in America, which started as a temporary stay in the 1980s. "It happens to be total coincidence that we have two tall blue animal sculptures," says Chavez. 
 
When the 3D model for I See What You Mean emerged from the printer, which had apparently been stocked with blue ink, Argent was surprised. "It teeters on the idea of Disneyland and fine art," says Argent, who opted to keep the color. 
 
When it comes to the 40-foot-high melding of composite materials designed for Colorado's sometimes inhospitable climate, it's all about interplay between certain elements: landscape, architecture, nature and science. "In Colorado, the landscape becomes the primary source for how people see art," Argent says. "I wanted to experiment with that. I'd seen the pictures of bears appearing at back doors in the paper and was fascinated."
 
With 2.5 million square feet of floor space available, Argent designed a presence that would be felt both indoors and out. The piece is indicative of his views concerning public art: mainly that is should be approachable and accessible to everyone, even those who rarely step foot inside the Convention Center and nearby museums.
 
Sound Walk
 
As viewers (or, rather, listeners) walk over the sidewalk's metal grates on Curtis Street between 15th and 16th streets, a soundtrack plays. Sometimes it's mooing cows or gushing water, other times it's a screeching New York subway. This is Jim Green's Sound Walk
 
"It really catches people off guard," Green says. Chavez concurs. "I've had people actually tell me that they didn't realize there was a subway in Denver." 
 
Installed in 1993, Sound Walk was Green's first piece of permanent public art -- but, not his last. Green also installed a laughing piece in an escalator in the Colorado Convention Center (Laughing Escalator). 
 
With Green's pieces, the visual aspect is the interaction between patrons and the art. "They hear sound but can't see anything except dark holes with grates," the artist says of Sound Walk. "Everyone looks around then their minds create visuals."
 
Fourteenth Street OverlayOne of the 14th Street overlays - Buffalo Billís Wild West show as performed at the Denver Performing Arts Center.
 
The Fourteenth Street Overlay project, completed this May, is like a toddler dressed for a cold day with all its layers. Twenty-three bronze and aluminum sculptures cast in metal, subtle in size and stature, are discretely placed among everyday objects like bike racks and kiosks. Each object is the size of the thing it represents: a spyglass, a box camera one of those coin-operated viewers you'd find at a beach or national park. 
 
While the East Coast artists behind it, Heiss and partner Marek Walczak, aren't locals, they immersed themselves in Denver culture to deliver something meaningful. "Each narrative is keyed to history, both forgotten stories and better known ones," Heiss says. "Some stories go back 100 years." 
 
Another element the artists toyed with was privacy. "Take the coin-operated viewer," says Heiss. "Even if what you see through the viewer isn't that much better than what you'd see with the naked eye, there's still a desire to see that view because it's a really private experience. We were excited about making this private experience happen on a public street."
 
If you're looking for all 23 sculptures, you'll be disappointed. A car hit the kiosk the team's final sculpture was attached to, so that installment is still forthcoming. 
 
Urban Art 
 
"Art changes communities," reminds Argent. Because the Public Art Fund, for example, is tied to capital improvement projects, Denver's collection may be disproportionately dispersed in areas deemed worthy of capital projects rather than areas that could benefit from artistic aesthetics. "Some less exposed neighborhoods like Five Points," notes Marold "have incredible things going on in terms of music and art; they just aren't being seen -- not yet." 
 
In addition to the Public Art Fund is the Urban Art Fund. Now in its fifth year of operation, what started as a modest graffiti task force under Mayor Hickenlooper's auspices quickly evolved into a substantial art project whereby artists are commissioned to paint murals on graffiti hot spots. 
 
Typically, artists create their murals in conjunction with local youths. "We work with at-risk youth, too, to teach them that vandalism is bad and there are more positive and productive ways to express themselves through art," Chavez adds. For the most part, the completed projects haven't been marred by vandalism. Last year, about 20 projects were produced through the fund; this year, there are 21 more in the works. About $50,000 of funding is allocated annually, from a general fund within the City of Denver's budget.  
 
The modest success of Sustainability Park, an urban farming and art experiment produced by the Denver Housing Authority, the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, and RedLine, is another prime example of how art is capable of revitalizing underdeveloped communities. Once a desolate patch of land, the park now functions as a clean, green and pristine gathering space in a neighborhood otherwise lacking an overwhelming number of refined aesthetics.  
 
Then there's the tale of the Fremont Troll, a colossal, amorphous beast of a thing installed beneath Seattle's Aurora Bridge, which had been a gathering place for addicts until the concrete eyes were watching. Now a space that many folks would have cared to forget altogether, is a celebrated, adored cornerstone in the vibrant community. 
 
What if trolls took residency under the bridges that vault 6th Avenue or Evans Avenue over the railroad tracks and Santa Fe Drive? Is a single piece of art really able to catalyze change on a meaningful level in lesser-developed areas? 
 
Argent has seen how powerful of a force art can be when it comes to changing a place. Back when he moved to the Highlands, it was gang-infested territory. "I had 911 on my speed dial," he recalls. "Today you have to navigate people queuing up for ice cream." 
 
Fellow artist Green echoes this perspective. "There's a large steel sculpture on the west side of Broadway, where the street turns into Brighton Boulevard," he says. "The place used to be almost a junkyard, now it's taking on a different meaning and there are brand new condominiums surrounding it."

Download a guide to public art in Denver here.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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