I recently attended a conference in Coon Rapids, Iowa, about public art in rural communities. Representatives attended from a variety of small rural towns throughout western Iowa all looking for ways to integrate art into their community. Coon Rapids, a recipient of a major grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, decided to go the public art way. In 2008, they commissioned David Dahlquist to design and install at the side of the highway a set of forty foot tall metal silo-esque structures titled “Hybrid Icons.”
The aim of projects such as these is at their base tourism or “branding,” the idea of giving a town a specific icon for which it is known (the Golden Gate Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, etc).
How effective are permanent public art installations in our modern day and age? In our heavily scheduled lives, how often do we leave the fastest path from point A to B and go out of our way to passively regard a structure? As sports stadiums install wireless internet and build custom apps for our iphones, Americans seem considerably less likely to stop for anything that isn’t interactive in some way. I don’t even mean electronically interactive. Can you climb on it? Can you manipulate it? Can you watch it change in the wind? And most importantly, will you stop for more than ten minutes to look at it before climbing back in your car and continuing on?
Roadside attractions are falling by the…well…roadside, and a multi-thousand dollar art installation is useless economically unless it actually manages to get people to drop a buck in town. Not only that, but an art installation built by the side of the highway means that the local community is relying on the income of the external, the families who come to visit. It does not aid the community in standing on its own feet.
Today, artists make culture as much as they reproduce it, and culture comes from within the town, not from the side of the highway. Art made for the sake of tourism circles us around to the old “Give a man a fish” quandary. For its part, Coon Rapids, Iowa, is not simply a fish-getting town. Artists live and work from within the community as well, and I do not mean to single it out as a negative example of public art. But as we look at more and more creative ways to maintain economic stability in our small Midwest towns, we must also reassess the creative ways to determine whether they function for a town of 1,000 the same way they might for a city of 100,000 or 1,000,000.
What do you think?
What do you imagine is the most effective use of art in rural communities? How should communities define words like “effective” and “use”?