Numerous towns across American feature outdoor sculptures. Sculptures honor generals, politicians, even animals. They stand on courthouse lawns, in front of libraries, on traffic circles and in city parks.
While sculptures are not uncommon, it’s rare to discover a city that utilizes dozens of outdoor sculptures to make a statement about art.
Prior to a recent planned visit to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, we discovered outdoor sculptures enjoy a prominent place in the town’s downtown renaissance. Surprisingly, most of the sculptures are on temporary loan and likely to be replaced with new sculptures within a year.
Perhaps it should be called “revolving art.”
The concept sounded interesting enough that during our visit to Eau Claire we sought out Julie Pangallo, executive director of Sculpture Tour Eau Claire, the organization responsible for the town’s outdoor art. Julie was kind enough to lead us on a downtown walking tour, during which she described each of the sculptures we encountered.
During a stop at a coffee shop, she offered insights on her organization and its goals. Sculpture Tour Eau Claire is a non profit funded through donations, grants, private sponsorships and sales.
The organization is in its eighth season of offering free public art to the town’s residents and visitors. Along with helping revitalize downtown, the organization’s executive director believes the art offers education and cultural enrichment and adds to community pride.
Each year, the organization invites artists to submit sculpture for consideration to be included in Eau Claire’s public display of art. For 2019, 36 sculptures will be selected for display.
Selections, announced each October, are based on several criteria including safety (for example, no sharp edges), durability (Wisconsin suffers rough winters), appropriateness and availability of a suitable location.
Durability also includes the ability to withstand heavy public interaction. One evening, we observed children sitting on “Wooly,” a sculpture of two small elephants. Later we watched as two young ladies climbed a pedestal and posed for a photo while hanging on the sculpture of Humpty Dumpty.
Sculpture Tour Eau Claire is the nation’s second largest rotating tour. The 2018 display includes 54 sculptures, 14 of which are permanent. The sculptures are rotated each spring, with new arrivals appearing in late May or early April.
The city of Eau Claire and several sponsors provide manpower and equipment for moving and installing new sculptures. Private sponsors pay $1,600 annually and, in return, their name is attached to the pedestal of the sponsored sculpture. One thousand dollars of the $1,600 is paid to the artist for an 11-month “loan” of a selected sculpture.
The organization covers the cost of insurance and some transportation expenses. All sculptures currently exhibited in Eau Claire are valued at approximately $500,000.
Most sculptures are available for purchase, with the artist’s selling price listed on each piece. Sculpture Tour Eau Claire receives 25 percent of the sales price when a sculpture is sold. Julie mentioned three to five sculptures are sold during a typical year.
Each year, a People’s Choice Award is presented to the sculpture that gathers the most votes from the general public. The winning sculpture is purchased by Sculpture Tour Eau Claire and gifted to the city’s permanent collection. The purchase price is limited to a maximum of $15,000. If an artist is unwilling to sell his or her work for $15,000 or less, the sculpture is ineligible for the award.
The sculpture tour isn’t the only art Eau Claire has going for it.
An impressive $60.5 million art center, Pablo Center at the Confluence, is nearing completion on the bank of the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers in what was once a blighted downtown area. The 155,000-square-foot black granite building, shared with the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, houses two theaters, one of which will have 1,266 seats. It will also house the Eau Claire visitor center, art galleries, rehearsal rooms and multimedia labs.
We were fortunate to tour the building with the center’s executive director, Jason Jon Anderson. The facility is impressive, especially for a town of fewer than 70,000 residents.
David and Kay Scott are the authors of the “Complete Guide to the National Parks” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. View their previous columns at www.factbook.com/DavidKayScott. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.