Debunking Myths About Public Art

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — What do an archeologist, an environmentalist, an engineer, and a curator have in common? Public art, at least when it comes to programs that take art beyond the gallery walls and onto hiking trails and highways. After all, it takes a village to make a 40-foot sculpture that can withstand 100 mph winds. Art WithOut Limits in Colorado Springs seeks to expand art audiences and art practices by popping up 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 this one different?

Launched in 2008, Art WithOut Limits initially featured performances and films presented in places like 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-venue arts center with surrounding acreage; this catapulted Art WithOut Limits into a more ambitious phase that included a robust rotation of temporary artworks 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 with regional, national, and international artists, which have resulted in a fourfold audience growth over the last decade — an outcome that she believes resulted from focusing on the half-million people in the Pikes Peak Region as well as the 13,000 students and staff of UCCS, instead of targeting neighboring cities like Denver.

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McGowan operates at the unusual intersection of community outreach and academic discourse. The UCCS Ent Center for the Arts, Galleries of Contemporary Art Downtown (GOCA), and many properties that host Art WithOut Limits are owned by the university. UCCS also covers McGowan’s salary and those of the faculty who lend their expertise when she needs an environmental impact analysis, archeological clearance, or an engineering report (and, says McGowan, she always needs an engineering report). However, the entire exhibition program is funded with grants and donations. “Moving large sculptures is not cheap,” she shares. “I run the entire 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 artworks in addition to hosting performances, talks, and residencies. When Cannupa Hanska Luger exhibited a show titled Lazy Stitch at the Ent Center in 2018, Art WithOut Limits secured a residency for him to work with students as well as build an outdoor artwork, “Everything Anywhere” (2018), in collaboration with UCCS outdoor services staff. Materials for the artwork were found onsite and the identification plaque credited all of the contributors. 

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

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

Temporary artwork installations encourage artists to experiment, and debunk the idea that public art is all about scale. Tsehai Johnson spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic hiking from her home to her studio, where she works in mixed media and ceramics. On one particular trek, she noticed the unique flora and fauna underfoot. She started researching and documenting each plant, even making teas from her finds. In 2023, Art WithOut Limits will translate the native plants around the site of Johnson’s installation Sourcing Your Hike into 100 metal sculptures.

Artist Ian Fisher had to reconsider the response to and reach of his art when his painting “Linda” (2019) became a billboard of bright billowing clouds for The Space(s) Between, a collaborative exhibition with the University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery and GOCA at UCCS in 2021. “The billboard ended up feeling much closer to land art,” Fisher told Hyperallergic, in terms of the journey the viewer must make. “Not just a drive, but the commitment to walking to an object. It’s far from a painting. The piece exists and changes because of its surroundings, each day with its own light and condition.”

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


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