Public images unlimited

Why bother with public art? Where does the funding come from?

Christina Cortez sits atop the bike rack she made, commissioned by the Reno Bike Project, behind Chapel Tavern.

Christina Cortez sits atop the bike rack she made, commissioned by the Reno Bike Project, behind Chapel Tavern.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Last week, I asked my sister if she had heard of “Perforated Object 27.”

She tried to respond, “Oh, yes, of course I do,” and rattled off some “ums.” After a few failed guesses, I gave her a gimmie and asked if she knew about the “Swiss cheese fish?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “That’s the thing in front of the law building.”

“Perforated Object 27” ("Swiss cheese fish") is only one example of public art in Reno. Its installation in front of the Bruce R. Thompson federal building in 1996 came as a shock to many. What was it? Why was it here? Some folks wrote letters demanding to know who paid for it.

It is, in fact, a large-scale rendering of a 3-inch bone artifact that artist Michael Heizer’s father discovered during his 1936 archeological dig of Humboldt cave. The perforated object had 90 holes bored into it, and Heizer took the piece and expanded it into a 9.5 feet tall, 27 feet long and 3.3 feet wide sculpture, made of welded steel with those exact 90 holes.

Yet, when it came to the public, many summed up the work as a fish fromage. Stacey Spain, public art specialist for the city of Reno, doesn’t seem to mind. Spain is the first (and only) public art specialist for the city of Reno. Just in the past three years, there’ve been another 30 pieces of public art added in Reno. This only includes art the city has funded, not murals done by private businesses or art groups setting up temporary public art displays.

The increase in public art is somewhat startling. Where did the bike racks come from? When did they decide painting electrical boxes was a good idea? Why have public art at all?

Change artists
To some, public art in Reno may be misguided. But the city clearly has a goal in mind. The arts district in downtown Reno provides a quintessential example of the transformation, economic and visual, provided by public art.

“Public artists changed [the] landscape of downtown,” says Jill Berryman, executive director of the Sierra Arts Foundation. “My oldest son is almost 19, and 19 years ago, I couldn’t imagine everyone and their children going to that part of town by themselves.”

Today the district is rife with public art. David Boyer was commissioned in 2003 to complete 63 kinetic lightpost art pieces that spin in the wind. The Bennett Park’s basketball courts were painted by Youth Artworks, a non-profit organization that Sierra Arts helped set in motion. Today the West Street Market on West and Second streets comes as the cherry on top for the arts district.

The downtown arts district illustrates what many in the city were thinking. To measure up to cities like San Francisco, Chicago or even Salt Lake City—and to infuse the city with a sense of community and place—Reno needed more public art.

In 1992, the city adopted the Public Art Program. This included the creation of the 2 percent for art ordinance. Simply stated, the ordinance meant any city construction project such as parks or capital improvements needed to give 2 percent of their budget toward public art. The percentage is slightly higher than many cities in the nation (Chicago is 1.33 percent, Seattle is 1 percent).

Stacey Spain, public art specialist for the city of Reno, says that over the course of a year, public art has changed the face of Reno.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Ten years later, the city proposed the Public Art Master Plan. This plan further expanded on the 2 percent for art ordinance and helped create positions such as Spain’s. On top of that, Spain says the Reno Arts & Culture Commission awards $50,000 each year in challenge grants, which are matched at a 2-to-1 ratio by the artists.

The Nevada Arts Council also awards annual design grants for artists interested in creating public art. Last year the group awarded $1.2 million to artists across all 17 counties in Nevada, says Susan Boskoff, executive director of the Nevada Arts Council.

Now after walking downtown or even visiting the Las Brisas Park in Northwest Reno, you’ll encounter public art work after public art work, and hopefully—so the prevailing thought goes—you’ll feel better about going to the arts district.

Forms and functions
On Sierra Street, there’s a box painted with a gooey face sitting atop a picturesque window scene. If opened, you’ll find electrical components because, surprise, it’s an electrical power box for a stop light.

Last year, 22 electrical boxes were painted by local artists at $650 a piece to deter graffiti.

“The thing is, graffiti artists respect another artist’s work,” she Spain. The city is planning to commission another 10 electrical box paintings. All the artists are local, some professional and some students.

The Reno Bike Project received two grants last year: the city of Reno’s Public $3,000 art grant and the Nevada Arts Council $3,500 design grant, says Kyle Kozar, co-founder and vice president of the group.

The grants helped them create the bike rack behind Chapel Tavern on Mount Rose Street (by Christina Cortez), the one in front of City Hall on First Street (by Austin Baker) and a bike rack to be installed at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“We saw a need, and we wanted a project to work on for the bike advocacy of our group,” says Kozar. It was their first experience with the public art and, for the time being, their last. “There was definitely a process to it,” he says.

Depending on the money given to the city of Reno from the 2 percent art ordinance, the city can send out calls for public art from local or national people. Although an artist may be talented, it’s necessary that the artist know how to budget, that the artwork withstands the outdoors and that it speaks to the community. The results are that much of the public art is sculpture, and sometimes the same artists are given repeat commissions.

Still, Boyer says it’s competitive. At times, he’s had to compete against 200 or more artists for one commission. But Reno’s public art is still in its infancy.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” says Boyer. He has completed a number of public artworks for Reno in the past seven years including “Birds,” a kinetic sculpture in front of the Northwest Reno library.

Reno’s public art scene is hardly complete. With only a few years devoted to public art, there’s still much to do. Spain sees public art as something more meaningful. Her 4-year-old daughter will grow up in a city that’s friendlier, more open—a city she’s helped create. The thought makes her tear up.

“Over the course of a year, we have changed the face of the city,” she says.