Art in the park

A downtown sculpture park is slated to open this summer, with exhibits that rotate annually, curated by different experts

“Bicentennial Park is calling out for more than trees and flowers,” said Christine Fey, the city’s arts and culture manager, as a compact digital timer beeped to tell her that her tea was done steeping at Hub Tea Bar.

Bicentennial Park is the little sister to downtown Reno’s Wingfield Park, just across the pedestrian bridge. It’s a block-wide triangular parcel of well-kept grass. Its eastern point is marked by the Portal of Evolution sculpture, a 26-foot-high steel butterfly, and at its west end, across from the Greyhound station, homeless people gather on shaded benches with knapsacks.

While Wingfield’s amphitheater and proximity to shops make it a popular gathering spot, Bicentennial is used largely for passing through. Condo dwellers walk dogs on the Truckee River Walk, the park’s southern border, and there’s a slow but steady trickle of joggers, bikers, downtown workers and tourists.

Fey said she likes the park and finds the homeless population there “respectful.” While it makes sense to her that a park that size would be used largely as a corridor, she called it “under utilized” and said she’d like it to attract more families.

Across the shiny, white tea-house table from Fey, Marlene Olsen from Rotary Club of Reno’s downtown chapter pulled out a map of Bicentennial Park that includes five gray blocks representing some proposed additions: sculpture pedestals and a concrete pad. The map details a project called the Rotary Club of Reno Sculpture Garden at Bicentennial Park, which has been approved by the city and is slated to open this summer. Olsen, who is chairman of the Rotary’s 100th anniversary project, said the club had sought an ambitious project with which to mark its centennial.

“It’s almost funded,” said Olsen. She said the Rotary is contributing $25,000 to the project. Fey said that for 2016, the city’s entire annual public art budget of $50,000 will go toward the park. Fundraising is underway for another $25,000.

While the monetary cost is expected to be about $100,000, Fey clarified, “It’s more like a $150,000 project with all the in-kind services.”

The design phase

The project manager for the sculpture park, Lindsey York, principal at Centerline Consultants, is a new Renoite and new Rotarian who is donating her services. Early in 2015, she moved here from Seattle with her husband, who now does mechanical and electrical construction management for Tesla. Her specialty is project-managing large commercial construction projects. She contracts and oversees designers and builders.

York said she’s carefully considered such details as how much weight pedestals can hold, how much wind they can handle if a sculpture happens to be sail-shaped and how to make them flood-proof and vandal-proof. Modifying the park to accommodate sculptures will also require adjustments such as reorienting the sprinklers so they don’t water the artwork and removing a large tree.

York said the park will feature granite slabs that were originally part of Reno’s old city hall, which was demolished in 1963. The slabs were unearthed in 2009 during construction on a flood control levee on the Truckee River and collected by landscape architect Richmond Breen, who stored them, intending for them to eventually be used in a public project. When the sculpture park opens, York said, they will serve as additional seating.

The city has set a few ground rules for the park’s artwork.

“It needs to be approachable by the public,” Fey said. “It has to be, for lack of a better word, G-rated.” Classical nude sculptures made of marble, for example, may fly in Rome, but Reno’s city officials and Rotary club don’t consider them public fare. (Even Rome got momentarily self-conscious, temporarily covering up its unclothed statues when Iran’s socially conservative President Hassan Rouhani visited the city on Jan. 26.)

The artwork will also need to be durable enough to withstand the elements for a year and designed or modified to bolt down to one of the four-foot concrete cubes that will serve as pedestals.

Still, Fey said, she’d like to see work that challenges people’s expectations: “People will see something they don’t ordinarily get to see.”

To that effect, the exhibit is scheduled to change each year, and she’s invited different experts with different tastes to serve as curators. The 2016 curator has not been officially named, but the city is in conversation with the Nevada Museum of Art.

NMA spokesperson Amanda Horn said, “The museum supports the idea of a sculpture park and may be involved with the artwork selection and curation this year — or in three years.”

In 2017, Paul Baker Prindle, curator of the University of Nevada, Reno’s art galleries, is expected to curate the park.

“I have some artists in mind who are going to take a look at the site,” Baker Prindle said. No plans are set in stone yet, but he’s considering a design firm from Montreal called Daily tous les jours. The group is known for playful, accessible public works that encourage interactions among people. Examples include a large swing set that makes music when people swing in synchrony and a hi-tech installation that allowed pedestrians to communicate across San Francisco’s busy Market Street using musically enhanced crosswalk lights.

The pieces Baker Prindle contracts for Bicentennial Park will have to be smaller in scale than those examples, but he wants to find something similar in spirit.

“No matter what, I’m interested in really thinking about it as a site where the visitors are absolutely essential to making the meaning happen,” he said. “I want to see the space feel very alive and dynamic, and I don’t want it to be work that you just look on. I want the viewer to be part of the work.”

For 2018, Burning Man has been asked to curate. The festival organizers have not yet announced specific plans for the park. In the last several years they’ve been involved in placing public art that tends to be quirky, accessible and sometimes interactive in Reno, Fernley, San Francisco and other cities.

“Their voices are so different,” said Fey of the three proposed curators. “Every year it’s going to be completely different. It’s going to be very cool.” Fey may implement a “people’s choice” voting process, in which the community’s favorite works would be purchased by the city and installed in area parks that don’t currently have artwork.

Public art beyond Bicentennial

Fey, who is largely responsible for acquiring and maintaining public art in Reno, talked about her philosophy on outdoor sculptures and how it came to develop: “When I started the program 25 years ago, I looked for best practices in places like Portland and Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and to a lesser extent Los Angeles.” She borrowed ideas and ordinances from other cities.

“And now, I’m flattered to say, others borrow from us. At least once every month or two I get a call out of the blue from some place: ’Our mayor was there. He loved what you’re doing.’”

“When I go to an Americans for the Arts Conference and my colleagues and I are talking on the bus somewhere, they say, ’What’s going in Reno?’ They hear that we have 185 pieces in our outdoor collection. They’re like, ’what?’”

Fey said that’s considered a large collection for a city of Reno’s size.