Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Positive Possibilities of Public Art: Wapato, WA

Image via wapato-city.org. (Apoligies--I couldn't find a free image of Wapato's sculptures! Check them out here.)
It’s the Thursday before Labor Day and the first day of September. (Can you believe it? As a major summer lover I am just going to pretend that today is August 32.) Accordingly, I am wrapping up the Art Advocado public art series today. What was planned to be a mini-series turned into more of a maxi-series! I’ve written about many and varied public art projects since I began the series in July. But though the projects may have varied aesthetically, most were urban projects with major dollars behind them, whether public or private. That’s all well and good but many communities simply don’t have that kind of funding available for art—especially in These Difficult Economic Times. So for my final post I’d like to tell you about Wapato, Washington, population 4,997, as a public art success story. Read on to find out how public art has impacted the town of Wapato, Washington—without art stars or big money. 

“It all started with art”
     I learned about Wapato from an article in the most recent NEA Arts Magazine which focuses on rural placemaking through the arts (I recommend checking it out—all of the articles are excellent!) Barbara Peterson, who was working on education outreach in Watapo, felt that the underserved but wonderfully diverse town needed some aesthetic inspiration. “The town didn't have a good sense of self, so I felt it needed public art, student art," she said. "It was a hardworking place and it didn't have beautiful architecture or other lovely things to retreat to.” But Peterson (who was working in Wapato because of it’s lack of services in the first place) also recognized that a large-scale, expensive public art project was not possible. So she turned to one of the town’s natural resources—children. Peterson describes Wapato as having “oceans” of them.
     To realize her vision for Wapato, Peterson sought funding from the Washington State Arts Commission for local children to collaborate with guest artists such as sculptors, bronze casters, and metalworkers; the resulting works were placed all over Wapato. The success of this project spurred Peterson to go even bigger. Inspired by metal cutout sculptures in downtown Seattle (which were affordable, easily maintained, and visually impactful), Peterson again turned to Wapato’s children to create a similar installation for their town. A group of children from each of the town’s local cultures—from the Wapato tribe to different Latino groups—chose imagery to represent their community on a cutout sculpture in downtown Wapato. Festivals, such as the now-annual Tamale Festival, were planned to draw attention to the works. To make a long story short, the presence of the sculpture has both aesthetically and economically improved Wapato by drawing residents downtown and spurring more public art projects. "Many great things are happening in Wapato and it all started with art. That was the spark,” Peterson told the NEA.

Small Town, Big Impact
     To me, the positive possibilities of public art are nowhere more evident than in the story of Wapato. The driving creative force behind the project was local children, not an art world star or even a commissioned artist. I think this local connection makes it the most site-specific work of all. (Take that, Richard Serra!) These sculptures were created by the community, for the community, and the community enjoys them. Every small town in America could emulate this project, and the results would all be different. The fact that Peterson could achieve this in Wapato, a town recognized as chronically underserved, means it could really be achieved anywhere. What a wonderful note to close out the public art series with! Happy Labor Day, everyone.

Does your city or town have a public art project like Wapato’s? What might it look like if it did?

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