Even during a pandemic, public art prevails and proliferates.
Children scampered on and around Hancher’s “Wellspring” fish sculptures in October while waiting to tour the “Hancher Illuminated” indoor/outdoor light and art installation in Iowa City. High school seniors and newlyweds pose for photos by the giant “Rollic” sculpture in downtown Cedar Rapids’ Greene Square. Pedestrians stroll, dine and listen to music in Marion’s Uptown Artway, which transformed a nondescript alley into a destination space.
Countless others have flocked to downtown Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in years past to see artists’ whimsical visions play out on temporary sculpture installations honoring two versions of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” couple, the Wright Brothers’ Eastern Iowa roots and the University of Iowa’s Herky mascot.
“That’s one of the wonderful things about public art. It has the ability to be place-making, becoming a destination place,” said Sean Ulmer, 57, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and chair of the Linn County’s Public Art Commission. “And I think that those of us who are more involved in the public sector understand that great public art can really be a draw to a community.”
It also helps establish a sense of identity, said Kayt Conrad, 61, Cedar Rapids Visual Arts Commission chair, pointing to the new gateway mural in Czech Village, inspired by the artistry of Czech painter Alphonse Mucha. The village’s business community is investing in public art, as well, on its buildings.
“Ultimately, what they’re doing is great for the city,” Conrad said. “It brings people here to look at the art. It gives people a sense of pride in their neighborhoods and the places where they live and work, so it’s just a benefit to everyone.”
Public art has been around since cave men drew on walls, and ancient civilizations filled their temples and city squares with sculptures.
“Public art is one of the oldest forms of art-making,” Ulmer said — and lately, it has been springing up around the Corridor, spreading much-needed cheer in this all-too-gloomy year.
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“Public art is something that we can all rally behind. With things being a little bit dark at times, or this year in general, it’s nice to have a positive light out there, and the sculptures in the area do just that,” said artist Dale Merrill, 47, who specializes in abstract sculptures created in his Liberty Iron Works studio in Mount Vernon. “We can appreciate the art, get a smile and maybe forget about some of the stuff around us.”
One of his most recent pieces is “Forge-Stand-Rise,” a 17-foot steel sculpture commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Linn County to mark two centennials: the formation of the national League of Women Voters and the passage of the 19th amendment, providing women the right to vote. Placed along the trail outside the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, the statue was presented to the city Oct. 22.
Uptick in public art
Merrill has seen an increase in demand this year for his work from the private and public sector. It’s a trend echoing around the Corridor, with recent unveilings of such publicly and privately funded works as a giant cherry behind the Cherry Building in the NewBo District, murals in Kingston and Czech villages, the League of Women Voters statue, a metal and lighted piece mounted on the back of CSPS Hall, a photo and prism suspension inside the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Center, all in Cedar Rapids, as well as the Hancher sculpture garden in Iowa City.
More art is in the works for both cities, according to leaders with the Linn County, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City public arts advisory boards. Installation of several public pieces is due to begin next spring, especially in Iowa City’s new Riverfront Crossings district.
Both cities make money available for public art, depending on the size and scope of the project. After the 2008 flood destroyed Linn County buildings, the Board of Supervisors designated 1 percent of funding for new structures be used for indoor or outdoor art, Ulmer said. Public art also has been financed through a combination of grants and private and public funds.
Such expenditures haven’t always been embraced by the public, with pushback on allocating toward art for Greene Square renovations in Cedar Rapids, announced in 2015, to objections over various projects in downtown Iowa City.
“Everything that any city department or city board or commission does is up for public scrutiny, and we’re going to get people who agree and who disagree with what we do,” Conrad said. “That’s their right, and they’re taxpayers and citizens, and we welcome public input. We have a public input time during every board meeting. We rarely have anyone come and talk to us — usually they go to the newspaper with an editorial comment. But we listen to that, too.”
As part of developing a more concrete strategic art plan for Iowa City in recent years, members of the public were invited to fill out a survey and provide input on existing art installations and places where they would like to see more arts.
“What we found out is that people want to see different types of art, not just permanent sculptural installations,” said Marcia Bollinger, the city’s staff liaison to the public art program. They want to see more performance, more temporary, more interactive kinds of art installations.
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“There’s been two times in the history since I’ve been involved, and that’s a long time, where two major projects politically were beaten down before they’d even gotten off the dime, because the public felt they were an extravagant use of funds. That’s just a consequence of a public art program,” Bollinger, 64, said.
“It is an easy victim of economic pushback,” she added. “Anybody can argue, is it really essential? Probably not. Does it add to the value of your experience in the community? Yes — to some, but not to all. It’s very subjective. We continue to pursue other sources of funding that aren’t so vulnerable.”
The timing is right, however, for adding art to the public landscape, Ulmer said.
“As we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, going out and seeing art in the public space is a relatively safe thing to do with your family unit,” he said. “You can enjoy artwork in some cases without even leaving your car, or easily by traveling by foot in the open air and seeing these things in the built environment.”
The Cedar Rapids Visual Arts Commission has turned spotting the art into a game on its website, including a map of public installations and a drive-by bingo link, complete with four bingo cards to download.
Some of the pieces are by local artists, others are by artists around the country and abroad, and one is by the late Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. His bronze sculpture, “Terpsichore, Muse of the Dance,” acquired in 1969, is displayed on the third floor of Cedar Rapids City Hall.
Area residents also have had a hand in creating at least two large-scale suspended installations in downtown Cedar Rapids in recent years. A piece by Ralph Helmick of Newton, Mass., hangs inside the Federal Courthouse atrium and features silhouettes of people who posed for photos in a Greene Square tent during a 2012 Downtown Farmers Market. The new piece suspended in the bump-out at the convention complex includes 340 public-submitted photographs of the Cedar Rapids area, printed on acrylic and suspended with prisms to capture light. The work was created by Seattle artist and architect John Fleming, who helped install it in October.
Both the courthouse and convention center pieces are lighted and visible from the street.
Casting a net locally and internationally for commissioned pieces serves several purposes, Ulmer said. It lets local artists compete with artists across the country and abroad, thus raising awareness of their artistry on a much wider scale, he said. And having art by a variety of artists helps prevent local installations from looking alike.
“Within our conversations with local artists who have applied to our calls, they want to compete on an international basis,” Ulmer said. “They want to be selected. Knowing that they won the commission after an international call is much more meaningful to them — to know that they won the commission against some of the best creators of public art in the country or in the world.”
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Merrill acknowledged that, but said he still likes to see local and regional artists awarded the commissions.
He has been creating public art pieces since 2001, and that now occupies about half of his work. His commissions can range from $1,000 to $2,500 on the private level, to $20,000 to $50,000 for a public work, with one even topping $100,000. He buys his materials locally or regionally, helping to stimulate the economy at home, and he pointed out that local and regional artists are invested in their communities, having set down roots. In the end, he’s proud to see his creations displayed where he lives.
Merrill, who works in his shop with his son, Kale, 19, has two large-scale pieces in the works: a 20-foot-long bar counter for the new Hotel Millwright in Amana, and a 10-foot-tall by 15-foot long Floyd of Rosedale metal sculpture for the city of Fort Dodge. The inspiration pig for the Iowa-Minnesota football rivalry trophy came from Rosedale Farms near Fort Dodge, Merrill noted. And the Amana hotel countertop will have antique tools and gadgets from the former woolen mill encased in layers of epoxy resin to preserve a piece of history.
Public art commissions can open new doors for artists, raising their profile and giving them new outlets for their art, Ulmer said.
“It’s very meaningful to be selected to create a work of public art,” he said. “It is out there for the entire world to enjoy. You are in people’s worlds. It’s not as if they have to come to an art museum to see your work. They can see your work as a part of their daily life. You have, as an artist, the opportunity to impact people’s lives on a daily basis. And that’s huge.”
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Learn more online
• Iowa City: icgov.org/publicart
• Linn County: linncounty.org/1129/Public-Art-Commission