Debunking myths about public art

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — What do an archaeologist, an environmentalist, an engineer and a curator have in common? Public art, at least when it comes to programs that take art beyond gallery walls and onto footpaths and highways. After all, it takes a village to make a 40-foot sculpture that can withstand 100 mph winds. Art Without Borders in Colorado Springs seeks to expand art audiences and art practices by appearing in unexpected spaces. With many public art projects around the country, from Park Social in San Diego to Project Row Houses in Houston, what makes is this different?

Launched in 2008, Art WithOut Limits initially featured performances and films presented in locations such as a parking garage and an office building. In 2018, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) built the Ent Center for the Arts, a 92,000-square-foot multi-site arts center with surrounding area; this catapulted Art Without Borders into a more ambitious phase involving a powerful temporal spin artwork on the center’s property, the adjacent Pulpit Rock Open Space property, owned by the university, and off-campus locations. Art director Daisy McGowan curates site-responsive public works by regional, national and international artists, which has resulted in a fourfold increase in audience over the past decade – a result she believes has come from focusing on half a million people in the Pikes Peak Region as well as UCCS’s 13,000 students and staff, rather than targeting neighboring cities such as Denver.

McGowan operates at the unusual intersection of community outreach and academic discourse. The UCCS Ent Center for the Arts, the Downtown Galleries of Contemporary Art (GOCA), and many of the properties that host Art WithOut Limits are owned by the university. UCCS also covers McGowan’s salary and those of faculty who lend their expertise when she needs an environmental impact analysis, archaeological cleanup, or an engineering report (and, says McGowan, she always needs an engineering report). However, the entire exhibition program is funded by grants and donations. “Moving large sculptures is not cheap,” she says. “I run the whole program on spec,” which makes her community outreach strategy imperative.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Everything Anywhere” (2018), mixed media (courtesy UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art)

In the last five years alone, Art WithOut Limits has exhibited 20 works of art in addition to hosting performances, talks, and residence. When Cannupa Hanska Luger exhibited a title show Lazy sewing at the Ent Center in 2018, Art WithOut Limits provided him with a residency to work with students as well as build an outdoor artwork, Everything Anywhere (2018), in collaboration with UCCS external services staff. The materials for the artwork were found on site and an identification plate credited to all contributors.

Infrastructure, climate, and vandalism—factors that are often overlooked—can sometimes change the aesthetics or costs of public art. McGowan recalls a child using a kinetic sculpture as a jungle gym and compacted soil resisting Patrick Marold’s eight-foot-tall 2,000 generators titled The Windmill Project (2020 onwards). “The reality is that not everything we want to do can happen, but with enough preparation you can get close,” she says.

Patrick Marold, “Windmill Project” (2020–ongoing), site-specific sculptural installation of 2,000 8-foot anemometer/windmill poles (courtesy Hoss Photography)
Elspeth Schulze, “The Shape of Water” (2021), site-specific sculptural installation (courtesy University of Colorado, Colorado Springs)

Temporary artwork installations encourage artists to experiment and challenge the idea that public art is about scale. Tsehai Johnson spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic walking from her home to her studio, where she works in mixed media and ceramics. On one particular trip, she noticed the unique flora and fauna underfoot. She began researching and documenting each plant, even making teas from her findings. In 2023, Art WithOut Limits will translate native plants around Johnson’s installation site Ensuring your growth in 100 metal sculptures.

Artist Ian Fisher had to reconsider the response and scope of his art when his painting “Linda” (2019) became a billboard of glowing clouds for Space(s) between, a collaborative exhibition with the University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery and GOCA at UCCS in 2021. “The panel ended up feeling much closer to earth art,” Fisher told Hyperallergic, in terms of the journey the viewer must take. “Not just a car, but the commitment to walk in a facility. It is far from a painting. The piece exists and changes because of its surroundings, every day with its light and condition.”

COVID-19 The pandemic highlighted how much public art anchors reunions and reignites conversations by providing safe spaces in nature. McGowan measures her influence by many metrics, from press to visitor numbers to money raised, but she admits it’s hard to measure the value of those gatherings. Working in a city that isn’t considered an art center also presents exciting opportunities, McGowan says, “I don’t underestimate [Colorado Springs] audience.”

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