Where Nature Ends 

Shining a spotlight on Boise's public art

  • Photo courtesy BCAC

Boise has been booming with creativity in recent years. Public city art has been popping up all over the place, from the airport to alleyways to parks all around town. Some recent pieces have been better received than certain previous high profile projects (ahem, "big blue crack"). But despite criticism and reactions negative or positive, art has plodded on in Boise, providing inspiration, much needed food for thought, fodder for discussion and eye candy or eyesores, depending on one's particular artistic tastes.

Karen Bubb has a lot to say about public city art. As the public arts manager for Boise City Arts Commission (BCAC), Bubb has immersed herself into the long-term objective of helping forge Boise into an evolved and eclectic artistic community--a place where artists can live, work and thrive and where the community also reaps benefits.

"Public art is a way of including elements in our public spaces that are about beauty and history--it's about where we live, it's not about a commercial goal," Bubb says. "The more we can engage artists in the place that they live so that our community doesn't become 'Anywhere, America,' then it's a benefit. If you look at what's in public spaces, there are billboards--advertising that's important economically--but we also need beauty and art."

The old debate over who can say what, exactly, constitutes beauty and art has a special intensity when it comes to public art. Public art is generally held under tough scrutiny because, well, it is public. In regards to the previously mentioned either you love it or you hate it "big blue crack" on the Grove Hotel downtown, Bubb made a very good point. Had the artwork not been done there, a big reader-board sign would have been installed instead. The notorious artwork has taken its share of lumps from the community. The piece, chosen through a public process, was a free artwork. Bubb reminds critics that "it's not trying to sell you something, it's about color and form. Hopefully it creates discussion about what is beautiful, even if you don't agree." Bubb maintains that she thinks the crack is beautiful, especially when the setting sun hits it just right. "It's breathtaking," she says.

But that's where BCAC has been. Where are they going? A very popular recent project is the "Homage to the Pedestrian," by Patrick Zentz. His piece lies between the Brick Oven Bistro on the Grove and 9th Street. If you haven't had the particular pleasure of experiencing it, walk close to the wall by the four lanterns and you will be delightfully surprised to find that your motion sets off a series of drums, bells, cymbals and chimes. Zentz's piece focuses on the relationship between the presence of people and their surroundings, making note and paying homage to the importance of pedestrians. Bubb points out the statement the artist makes: "People are the lifeblood of the streets and he's celebrating their presence."

Zentz will be working on another piece soon. Three large-scale sculptures in the shape of water molecules will be made for the Boise Watershed Project. These sculptures will spin in the wind and their movement will transform into sound picked up from readings of the wind velocity, the data from which is then translated into musical notes. The watershed project will be an environmental learning center, focusing on recycling, waste water treatment and air quality, and it breaks ground in September. It will primarily cater to school groups, to show how water is treated. Amy Westover (her well-known "Grove Street Illuminated" piece is at 9th and Grove Streets) is another artist associated with the project. She will be doing three projects--artwork silk screened directly on the front windows, concrete molds that wrap around the entire building and mimic water lines carved into the sides of a reservoir. And finally, Westover will use recycled pipes from the wastewater treatment plant to create bathroom sinks and fountains in the building. Completion is expected by early spring 2007, if all goes well.

The Idaho Commission for the Arts worked with BCAC recently to conduct a survey throughout the state examining public art statistics. Results indicated that Boise has the most public art in Idaho, the most diversity of mediums, as well as the strongest infrastructure for supporting public art. Boise has very strong political support for public art programs from Mayor Dave Bieter and the City Council. Bieter recently allocated an additional $20,000 to the original $10,000 given by the city to anchor grants for non-profit organizations, such as the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Ballet Idaho, Opera Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic. It was the first increase given to anchor organizations since the city art fund grants started in 1997.

Mayor Bud Clark served Portland, Oregon from 1984 to 1992, but it is the photograph taken before his election to public office that cements his commitment to the arts. The famous "Expose Yourself to Art" print shows Clark in a trench-coat "flashing" Norman J. Taylor's downtown statue, titled Kvinneakt, (Norwegian for "nude woman"). Bieter may not show Boise his own trench-coated goods, but he has shown publicly-funded arts the money. However, it takes more than active city leadership and grant money to support public art in communities. Bubb insists that to be successful, it will take more than the efforts of the BCAC and city government alone. "We are only a single government agency--we can only do so much. There needs to be respect and engagement in art from the state, county, citizens. If citizens want [public art], they need to ask for it."

Though there's been a surge of energy put into public art locally, on a national level, Idaho, has a lower public art budget than other states. The shift from a concentrated amount of art downtown to geographically distributing art throughout Boise is possible only because of the commitment from BCAC and city government.

Bubb remains optimistic for the future of public art in Boise. When asked what she'd like to see happen in the future, Bubb answers without hesitation--an arts and cultural center that combines studio, rehearsal and work spaces for all art mediums and disciplines in our community. She asserts that discussions are happening now to make that happen someday.

There is great variety in the projected public art installations that deal with history, sound and environmental issues. Keep an eye (and an ear) out for new art coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

For more on the BCAC and public art, visit www.cityofboise.org/arts_commission.

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