Some Durangoans embrace public art with a simple smile, a quick selfie or by adorning it with artistic variations of their own, such as placing flags on sculptures for the Fourth of July. Others argue on social media that public art is not worth taxpayers’ investment.
The Durango Creative Economy Commission, formerly the Public Art Commission, has waded through public art controversies since 2004, when it became an official board under the city’s purview.
The commission was renamed the Creative Economy Commission in March and expanded its mission to include advocacy; supporting artistic education; and fostering creative businesses, industries and artists, among other goals.
The group will continue to maintain and grow the city’s public art collection, worth more than $1.2 million.
“It’s known all around Colorado that we have one of the significant collections for the size town we have,” said Chairwoman Carol Martin.
The 33-piece art collection is expected grow in 2019, with at least three installations, including laser-cut metal panels at the DoubleTree intersection (U.S. Highway 550/160) and two sculptures created by students at Durango High School, said Colleen O’Brien, the city’s business development and redevelopment coordinator.
Much of the controversy around public art surrounds its price, but two-thirds of the city’s collection, or 22 pieces, were donated, she said.
The commission was started by Martin, a jewelry designer, in the late 1990s as an independent committee. Through donations, the committee placed art around town in hopes it would help with grant applications and prove the group was viable.
Martin said she has many favorites in the collection. But she is pleased with all pieces at the Durango Public Library, the only city building in town that designated 1% of the cost of construction to public art. As a result of that investment, it has become a mini center for art, she said.
The infamous Arc of History installed at the intersection of U.S. Highway 550/160 in 2014 is probably one of Durango’s most controversial public art pieces. The rock sculpture was ridiculed as being unimaginative, overly expensive and not built by a local artist. But it also became the target of fun-loving artistic improvisations, including the addition of a dinosaur head, dragon’s head and baby arcs.
“I think a lot of people were embracing it,” Martin said.
So it was disappointing when a vandal(s) smashed the arc, possibly with a sledgehammer, she said. The arc, which was beyond repair, was eventually removed.
“That was a stumbling block, and we move on, we keep growing,” Martin said.
For Creative Economy Commissioner Erin Murphy, a sustainability consultant, public art generates conversation and creates a community that residents want to live in and tourists want to visit, she said.
“Art improves our lives, whether we realize it or not,” she said.
The arts and cultural sector in Durango also contributes about $18 million to the city’s annual economy, according to an Americans for the Arts report.
The creative economy can include artists, performers, restaurants, brewers, inventors, architecture, among other sectors.
The city has already bolstered the creative economy through its Durango Creates! grant, a funding source meant to inspire community members to create their own art, O’Brien said. Last year, through the Creates! grant, the city gave away $20,000 to fund small projects that will not become part of the city’s public art collection.
The city set aside $15,000 for the grant in 2019 and $24,134 for public art in general, according to the city budget.
Creative Economy Commissioner Scott DW Smith, a professional photographer, said he believes the recent Creates! pieces, such as the new mural behind Kroegers Hardware, are well worth public investment. The Kroegers mural brightened an area visible to thousands who ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Murphy lives near north Main Avenue and has heard neighbors love the grant-funded butterfly mural on the Think Network Technologies Building in the 3000 block of north Main Avenue.
She also appreciated the interactive Lego sculptures artist Sam Bridgham brought to the Animas City Farmers Market last year as part of the grant.
“It was kind of magical to see how kids really reacted to that,” she said.