Public arts activity contributing to regional ‘rebranding’

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,402 views 

This sculpture by the artist Bordalo II sits on the lawn of the Walker-Stone house in downtown Fayetteville. It’s made of discarded materials and is part of his Trash Animals series.

Northwest Arkansas has seen a surge in public arts activity in the past five years, and the movement takes a prominent role in plans for community development, especially downtown.

“What it [public art] really does is it contributes to an overall vitality of the area, and it’s an immediate engager,” said Kelly Hale Syer, executive director of the Downtown Springdale Alliance, a nonprofit focused on the revitalization of the city’s downtown area. “When people see public art, they know that the community is thoughtful about what is happening there, and that the city really engages the creative community. This is a community that both consumes and creates art.”

In August, work began on “Green Candy,” a public art project in downtown Fayetteville with the theme of environmental sustainability. “Green Candy” was commissioned by Experience Fayetteville, the city’s visitors’ bureau, and curated by the global artist network JustKids, also responsible for “The Unexpected” public art project, which has resulted in the installation of close to two dozen large-scale, original public artworks during the past three years in downtown Fort Smith.

Dayton Castleman, an artist and the museum manager of 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, said “The Unexpected” is an example of “urban rebranding” through art.

“It has a direct, utilitarian purpose, to make downtown more attractive while also make it more culturally dynamic.”

Castleman’s works include the “Three Feathers” sculpture on Southwest A Street in Bentonville. For urban planning and development, art can be a “magnetic object,” he said. “The reason it’s so powerful is because people can’t ignore it.”

Syer extended the idea of the “magnetic object,” with implications on the arts’ surroundings.

“It brightens the community. It makes people curious,” Syer said. “It makes them get out of their cars. If they’re riding on the trails it makes them slow down a bit, and then they look not just at the art, but at the community downtown,” including the retail stores, restaurants and open spaces.

“They’ll feel excited to be there, and people are going to keep coming back and back, whether it’s our citizens or visitors from within the region or beyond,” she said.

New works created within the “Green Candy” project include two on the lawn of the Walker-Stone House at 207 W. Center St., a piece from Eureka Springs crochet artist Gina Gallina that is a strawberry with bees hanging from a tree, and a sculpture of two deer butting antlers. The deer piece, like other works by Bordallo II of Portugal, is made of discarded materials. Bordallo’s work also appears in Fort Smith.

Down the street, Fayetteville artist Jason Jones depicted a rabbit with an oxygen mask on the side of architect David McKee’s studio at 545 W. Center St. Black bears by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic now adorn the side of a building at 1 W. Mountain on the downtown square, and Marina Zumi painted a colorful mural featuring hexagons on the side of Hog Haus Brewing Co. on Dickson Street.

“Green Candy” was funded with hospitality tax revenue the city allocated for public art in 2015.

“We entered into ‘Green Candy’ with $100,000 in the budget for public art, and while we haven’t yet fully settled all of the accounting, we will likely have spent most of that,” said Molly Rawn, executive director of Experience Fayetteville.

“The Unexpected,” on the other hand, has been privately funded, led by a nonprofit founded and led by Steve Clark, CEO of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics.

The Nature Conservancy of Arlington, Va., and Ink Dwell art studio of San Francisco have chosen the tower at Springdale Municipal Airport as the setting for another privately-funded public art installment that is the kick-off of the Migrating Mural project, a series focused on the migration of monarch butterflies and bringing awareness to their declining population in North America.

The airport tower will be the site of a 50-foot-tall vinyl and aluminum blown-up print of a painting by Jane Kim. It depicts several monarch butterflies and a caterpillar arranged in the shape of an infinity sign, and the piece will be installed at the airport tower the week of Sept. 30.

From there, the artist will over a three-year period install original artwork featuring monarchs along the butterflies’ migrating paths between Mexico and Canada, according to a summary of the project put out by Ink Dwell.

The Springdale installation, titled “Kaleidoscope,” was funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to the Downtown Springdale Alliance. The foundation gave the nonprofit $45,000 to go toward public art in downtown Springdale, and the money also paid for the painting of Marshallese cultural symbols on a basketball court by the Jones Center for Families, Syer said. Close to 6% of Springdale’s 78,557 residents are Marshallese, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

A recent work in Bentonville also reflected the themes of reuse of materials and nature — specifically, the monarch butterfly. It is a multi-piece metal sculpture at Orchards Park titled Monarch and Dandelions by Denver-based artist and Arkansas native, Amanda Willshire. The artwork, located about a quarter-mile from the entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and along the John Deshields Trail, is made of bike parts. Willshire said she enjoys long-distance rides as a chance “to get back to nature.”

She was inspired to “combine these two loves and create a giant butterfly of bike parts with the cogs being a perfect representation of a monarch’s lacy wings. Bike wheels make the perfect seeds of a dandelion. The orbed structures create an airy and interesting backdrop for the butterfly to be flying about. ‘Monarch and Dandelions’ challenges the visitor’s perspective of not only size but use of materials,” Willshire said.

“Monarch and Dandelions” was funded by Bentonville’s hospitality tax. The city’s travelers’ bureau Visit Bentonville paid about $12,000 for the piece, out of its $70,000 public art budget, said Kalene Griffith, president. Bentonville’s Public Art Council also in the past year has arranged the design and installation of artwork in the bicycle and pedestrian tunnels along the city’s trail system.

“Visit Bentonville and city of Bentonville feel arts is an essential part of Bentonville,” Griffith said. “Public art is a conversation revealing our destination and stories of our people. … Our story is powerful.”

Daniel Hintz, who consults with organizations on community development through his role as principal of The Velocity Group of Bentonville, also referred to public art as a form of discourse.

“A lot of this is part of the larger conversation of creating great places, begging those larger questions of who we are, and how do we express that identity? Art is part of that conversation,” Hintz said.

“What is our unique, differentiating factor? What are those elements of who we are?” he added. “This art that is popping up all over the place is an expression of who we are.”

For example, Springdale is looking to carve out its niche as a “maker community,” said Syer. She expects residents will see more public art downtown, though the plan for implementing it is still in the works.

Upcoming projects throughout NWA include a mural on a 1,700-square-foot retaining wall along North College Avenue in Fayetteville, between Cleburn and Prospects streets.

“Public art is one of the programs that together help to promote tourism and to create a ripple effect,” said Chung Tan, director of economic development at the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, pointing to the support of jobs within the tourism industry and adding that public art may encourage people to make more art or commercialize work they’re already doing as a hobby.

Castleman said: “For a community really lacking in critical mass of practicing artists, the more opportunity there is to apply your trade and make a living, the more you’ll attract a particular type of person and artists.

“NWA is having an accelerated crucible of cultural change,” driven by private funding, Castleman said.

He compared the investment of area families, including the Walton Family Foundation, to that of the Medici family in Florence, Italy, during the 14th century, “when the making of a city was wrapped up in the creation of spectacular works of art,” Castleman said. The Medici’s support of the arts made Florence the cradle of the Italian Renaissance. And while Castleman is not proclaiming a movement of such historical weight in NWA, he said “You can’t ignore the similarities.”