Denver has its share of memorable public art: the big blue bear peering into the Convention Center, the horse on a red chair outside the Central Library, "Blucifer," the creepy blue mustang at Denver International Airport with glowing red eyes that crushed artist Luis Jiménez and has garnered both praise and disdain.
For those interested in joining the ranks of Denver's public artists — and surviving their projects — Denver Arts & Venues has announced four opportunities to create public works for the city.
"Any time the city has a capital project and the construction and design is a million dollars, 1 percent is set aside by the commission as a fund for site-specific art works," says Brendan Picker-Mahoney, a public-arts administrator with the Denver Public Art Program. These projects come from that pool of money.
The city is looking for applicants to create two projects at the Carla Madison Recreation Center under construction at the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Josephine Street. Inside, the center will boast a $7,000 portrait of one of the most flamboyant members in the history of Denver City Council, the late Carla Madison. Another installation, budgeted at $45,000, will be showcased outside the center. That work should tackle a hodgepodge of issues. The request for qualifications states that the project should be:
...a unique, one-of-a-kind artwork that is appropriate for the Carla Madison Recreation Center and for the diverse community that utilizes it. The artwork should speak to the historical nature of the Esplanade, City Park, the adjacent East High School, and the uniqueness of Colfax Avenue. The artwork should also attempt to incorporate themes of movement, transportation, and the idea of a 'journey.' The artwork can also speak to the literary connections in the area, including East High School graduate Neal Cassady and the historic statue celebrating Scottish poet Robert Burns.
The city has also budgeted $18,000 for an installation at Paco Sanchez Park that addresses the history of the Villa Park neighborhood and Latino musician, radio broadcaster and community activist Paco Sanchez, the park's namesake.
The exterior of the Denver Zoo will get a facelift of its facade, including a large-scale public work with a massive budget of $285,000. While the other projects are geared toward Colorado artists, this one aims to attract national artists or arts groups. The RFQ states:
The panel is particularly interested in artworks that explore the interplay between the built and natural environment that celebrate the Denver Zoo and City Park and highlight the transition between the two, that are sensitive to nearby wildlife and are calming yet innovative, and provide visitors with another reason to pause at the site. The artwork should have a daytime and nighttime presence.
Artists interested in applying for the Carla Madison Recreation Center projects have until January 16 to turn in their RFQs; those interested in the other two projects have until January 23.
Typically, between fifty and 400 artists will send their portfolios and résumés to a project-specific art selection panel that comprises a city council member, arts professionals, neighbors and city department employees. The panel will weed the initial pool down to three to five artists or arts groups, who will be paid to develop proposals. That panel will select a finalist, who will be vetted by the Public Art Committee, which will review safety issues; the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, which will review the transparency of the process; and Mayor Michael Hancock, who has final veto power — something history suggests he is unlikely to exercise.
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Finding a group of people to agree on public art may seem like a long shot, but that's the goal, says Picker-Mahoney: "We strive for consensus-based decision-making."
Too often, people blame Denver Arts & Venues when they don't like the city's public art, Picker-Mahoney says. But he and the other city arts administrators don't curate public art; they ensure that the art selection panel's process is fair, transparent and inclusive of the community.
In other words, if you don't like the projects, don't blame them.