Public art's unheralded bonus? Projects invigorate the local economy.

When the city spends money on public art, the funds also create jobs, spark commerce and keep local businesses thriving. And it can make Denver a more pleasant place to live, work, and visit.
You may thrill to a big blue bear or disdain a wild blue mustang on the Denver skyline, but no matter your reaction to specific examples of public art, there’s no denying money spent on such landmarks flows back into the local economy.

Love them or hate them, there are positive returns on public art investments in sometimes surprising ways.

Silo Workshop did restoration work on Jonathan Barofsky's "Dancers" at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

“I believe in the value of public art as it strengthens our city pride, enhances our quality of life, it’s art that is accessible to all, and it supports the role of the artist,” said Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of cultural affairs for Denver Arts & Venues.

 “Having said all this, how do we quantify the value to the city’s economic health?”

One way is to look at the local fabricators who make the projects a reality.
Even if the creators are from out of town, most artists use local fabricators and installers to complete their works, creating jobs and bolstering regional businesses.

DIA's blue horse isn't everyone's favorite piece of art, but the debate over its merits is one of the things that make it interesting. Silo Workshop gave it some tender care.

Conor Hollis of Silo Workshop said, “We build for artists all over North America. So not only are we bringing local municipality and state funds into the local economy through materials, employees, etc., we’re also bringing money from outside of the state.”

He lists insurance, consumables, leased office space, vehicles, trailers, license plates, equipment and sundry other expenses in his line of work.  “Quite a bit goes back into the local economy. Electricians, mechanical engineers, contract workers on installations, art consultancies…”

The work often requires specialized experts, both for work in town, and for the public art projects the  Silo team does in other cities, often using local engineers. When it comes to hiring engineers, “We deal with weird things, not just calculating load-bearing beams,” Hollis said. For Haddad Drugan’s “Light Meader,” a vertical sculpture snaking back and forth like the Cumberland River in Nashville’s riverfront park, his company designed “a compound curve that had to be cantilevered out 15 feet without taking away from the aesthetic.” That required more specifically “art-oriented engineering.”

When Lawrence Argent's beloved blue bear was tagged with graffiti, the city called in Silo Workshop to restore the original surface.

Much of Silo’s work is in restoration and conservation. For example, the group has done new coating applications for the Jonathan Borofsky “Dancers” sculpture at DCPA, the Luis Jimenez “Mustang” at Denver International airport, and Lawrence Argent’s “I See What You Mean,” a.k.a. The Big Blue Bear, at the Colorado Convention Center. These sorts of projects will require ongoing maintenance. “We deal with a high UV issue in Colorado,” Hollis said. “It’s cool work.”

Local consultants and advisers like Nine dot Arts, which arranges art for hotels, universities, hospitals and public spaces like Union Station, are another part of the equation.

Beyond beauty, an economic and psychic bonus

“You can’t just look at it from the financial impact,” Hollis said. “There’s also the cultural impact. We’re producing art. There’s such a thing as art tourism now. We employ artists that are able to make a living, work on outside projects, they are fostered in the technical capacity and creative, down to infrastructural, structural engineering. “The more cultural a city is, the more a draw it is.”

This is what economists call “contingent valuation” — it’s hard to put a price on a nice view, but people do get a benefit from it.

In real terms, beyond the cultural and educational value in art objects, there are material, ancillary benefits.

“It’s a matter of circulating the money through the economy,” said Deana Miller of the consulting firm Art Management & Planning Associates. “When you hire an artist, they don’t pocket the money.” They hire companies like ours to build and install, we hire employees who have workers comp insurance, subcontractors who buy materials, there is sales tax, then the artist will hire engineers to design for structural safety, they hire bookkeepers to do the accounting…It’s not about creating jobs necessarily, but it is an impact because it circulates in the community.”

Silo's business includes the fabrication, installation, and preservation of public art.

Income from tourism isn’t a huge factor, Miller said, unless you have a blockbuster like Anish Kapoor’s mirrored-finish “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, a top tourist attraction known as The Bean, which is said to be an economic boon to the city.

There’s nothing equivalent in the Mile High City. The Colorado Convention Center doesn’t measure up to Chicago’s Millennium Park. But Denver does have quieter public artworks, like neighborhood murals, that have a different kind of value. “Placemaking” is the current buzzword. That covers art works that revitalize neighborhoods and make them great places to live, that make people want to visit, return with family and friends, maybe stop in the coffee shop nearby, that encourage businesses to locate where their employees want to live.

“It’s hard to quantify,” Miller said, “that’s the biggest challenge of public art. How do you put a number on how cool Denver is because of how it looks?”

The appeal of public art is as difficult to quantify as the objections of naysayers.

“When somebody hates a piece of art in public, I always try to explain that somebody else loves it,” Miller said.

When it comes to public art commissions, “sometimes our calls are for local artists,” Navas-Nieves said, “other times for regional, national and international artists. There is value in supporting our local talent and value in bringing national and world talent to our city.”

A Silo worker gets up close doing maintenance on an Alexander Phimister Proctor icon in downtown Denver. All photos provided by Silo Workshop..

“But all these people and projects need the local fabricators/engineers/installers/coordinators/conservators, etc. to make it a reality. We are lucky to have the 1 percent for Public Art ordinance that requires that every city capital project over $1 million designate 1 percent for public art and the investment goes beyond the artist and the art piece. These projects are possible because of these local businesses.

“It takes a village,” she said, “and our city’s economy benefits from them.”

“We have to be careful when we select artists,” AM&P’s Miller said. “We can’t exclude artists from out of state, (because) we want other states to  hire our artists. We also import artists from other states…It’s a tough balance.”

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