An investment in public art is an investment in the community – Sheridan Media

This story first appeared in Cowboy State Daily

By Joshua Wood, Tourism/Business Reporter
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The direct economic benefits of public art can be difficult to measure. For those who support these programs, the indirect benefits are worth the cost.

Laura McDermitt, director of the Laramie Public Art Coalition, said instilling pride in the community is the greatest investment.

The organization is supported through a combination of public funds such as 5th Penny sales tax revenue from the City of Laramie and Albany County and private donors.

“It’s really an investment in the community and the people who live there,” McDermitt said. “Their pride of place, their enthusiasm and their sense of place translates to someone wanting to visit here.”

Community pride

A common theme among communities and organizations that support community arts programs is the sense of community pride that the programs encourage.

“One of the best examples is our city administrator,” said Kim Love, owner of Sheridan Media. “When he was thinking about locating here, he was impressed by the sculpture program and that’s why he wanted to be in Sheridan. It made a statement by the community about how they felt about their community.”

Sheridan’s Public Art Committee was formed in 2001 by then-Mayor Jim Wilson. At Gillette, a similar program, the Mayor’s Arts Council, was formed in 2003. Because of both programs, more than 120 bronze sculptures line the streets in each city.

Each year, eight sculptures are loaned to the permanent collection for 12 months. The two cities each use a similar program that pays artists an honorarium or stipend to borrow their sculpture, at which time the piece is available for purchase by the public.

After each year, at least one of the statues is purchased by the city for the collection through donations from private donors. In Gillette, over 100 sculptures have been sold through this program over the past 15 years.

Downtown Sheridan, Wyoming

“People who have visitors to Gillette are amazed at how many pieces of art we have in and around Campbell County that are part of the Mayor’s Arts Council,” said Stephanie Murray, community engagement manager for Visit Gillette. “They’re amazed at how many people actually donate art back to the city to preserve it here and for people to enjoy.”

Community pride through investment in public art is McDermitt, who is originally from Pittsburgh, and her husband moved to Laramie.

“We need to be in a place where we’re excited about artwork and having new and interesting things,” McDermitt said. “We certainly saw that in Laramie.”

According to Stacey Crimmins, studies show that arts and culture are one of the main reasons people move to a community. Crimmins, in addition to being a Platte Valley Arts Council member and project coordinator for the Platte Valley Public Art Project, is the former CEO of the Saratoga/Platte Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve been told by more than one person when evaluating communities to move, that (public art) was a deciding factor,” Crimmins said. “I’ve heard that a lot at the Chamber of Commerce.”

Gillette, Wyoming

economic development

While the success of tourist attractions and events can be measured through accommodation demand and sales taxes, public art is difficult to track through traditional means.

“It’s hard to quantify the dollar amount in terms of dollars added to the community that public art brings, but it’s definitely a draw for tourists,” said Rachel Clifton, assistant director of the Wyoming Arts Council, who lives in Laramie.

Downtown Laramie is filled with colorful murals by various artists. These murals, Clifton said, encourage passers-by to stop and explore the community.

“It costs dollars to go shopping or have lunch,” Clifton said.

Love believes the public art program has had a positive impact on Sheridan’s tourism. While the bronze sculptures are purchased with the help of private donations, the City of Sheridan supports the program through operating expenses.

“It’s hard to measure because we’re not like a museum where you can count the people who come through the front door but just look at the number of people who pose with the statues and stop to admire them,” Love said.

Because it can be difficult to trace that money back to public art, it can also make it difficult to apply for grants to support public art. So, project coordinators sometimes have to be creative.

Such was the case with the Bossert Collective in Lander when they applied for Fremont County’s MOVE (Creating Opportunities for a Viable Economy) grant. All projects supported by Bossert Collective are grant funded.

“The way I wrote that grant and the way I pitched it to the commissioners was that people stopped when they saw public art,” said Stacey Stebner, project coordinator and co-founder of the Bossert Collective. “I can’t guarantee it because we put a giant wall on the wall that every business will see a $10,000 increase every year. It’s really hard to measure the exact impact.”

Without hard numbers, Stebner looked to other cities in the West that had invested in public art, such as Taos, New Mexico and Lakewood, Colorado.

“It’s completely transformed these downtown spaces,” Stebner said. “There are more people stopping by, there are more businesses that are able to stay, there are more businesses, there are fewer empty storefronts and they are attributing it to the investment in public art.”

Support your local artist

One economic aspect of public art that many people don’t think about, Clifton said, is how it benefits local artists. It’s one of the reasons she supports more funding for public art programs.

“I’ve always been a strong supporter of more funding for public art. I think it’s a great way for communities to invest in their communities financially and culturally and support their local artists,” Clifton said. Paying people who do a living wage to help beautify and enhance their communities.”

Supporting local artists is exactly what the Platte Valley Arts Council is doing by using six local artists in its public art project, though that may not have been the original intent.

“The way we structured it was to try to fit it into a very small board and make sure we could handle what we were doing,” Crimmins said. “We chose them (artists) based on the fact that we know their work.”

One of the artists is the late Jerry Palen, creator of the syndicated “Stamped” one-panel comic. An oversized comic panel will be Palen’s contribution to the project. Another artist, Jamie Waugh, will create a tribute to the late cowboy poet Chuck Larson.


Public art advocates say supporting local artists means giving an underrepresented demographic in their community a platform and a voice. This is the case with Bossert Collective and its current project with two recipients of the Wyoming Arts Council’s Native Art Fellowship.

Collin Friday, who is Northern Arapaho, and Talisa Abeyta, who is Eastern Shoshone, are painting a mural next to the Lander Bake Shop with the help of another artist, Adrienne Vetter. Friday has contributed murals for the Laramie Public Art Coalition and is combining her artistic style with Abeyta’s for a mural in Lander.

Friday has a master’s degree in rangeland ecology that found its way into the mural through a painting of fireweed, one of the first plants to grow after a forest fire. Abeyta has a background in laser art, which places modern images on historic laser paper.

“They designed the mural to look like one giant piece of laser art, combining both of their elements,” Stebner said. “So it has fireweed and then the image of Talisa is this really big buffalo that’s running through the wall at you.”

The frescoes painted by Friday and Abeta are very different from the bronzes seen on Lander. Stebner said there was a reason for this.

“We have this great little community that borders the Wind River Indian Reservation, a community of 50,000 Native American people, and it’s not really represented here in Lander,” Stebner said. “Driving through Lander, you wouldn’t know that the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes are there.”

Friday and Abeyta’s mural is an example of how public art can be used to make a statement, Clifton said.

“Lander, in particular, and other communities really see public art as a way to hire Native artists and people of color but that artwork directly reflects their life experiences,” Clifton said. “It really gives a voice to the artists and the people who live in that community.”

Art for everyone

According to Crimmins, an important characteristic of public art is its accessibility.

“It means that families can have access to the arts without barriers. In Saratoga and Encampment, we have an underserved population,” Crimmins said. “There aren’t a lot of arts and cultural opportunities, so the (Platte Valley) Arts Council exists and those It’s about trying to bring opportunities.”

Removing barriers to more casual encounters with art makes those experiences more special, Clifton said.

“It helps to soften the edges a little bit and to create encounters with art on people’s own terms,” ​​Clifton said.

There may still be some barriers between members of the public and public art, Stegner said, based on its location in business and shopping districts.

“We like to think it’s for everyone and because it’s public but it’s put in a specific area to generate business dollars,” Stebner said. “Not everyone in our community has the ability to stop in these places and spend money in these places.”

Stebner said it’s important to look beyond the economic benefits public art can have for a community.

“It’s also providing some visual stimulation and something really beautiful to look at, if people don’t stop and it doesn’t have an economic impact,” Stebner said. “It still contributes to quality of life.”

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