Walk around downtown Carbondale and you will likely be struck by the density of public art. Seemingly on every street corner can be found some manner of sculpture, a decorative reality that without a doubt adds to Carbondale’s pleasantly funky vibe.
Walk around downtown Basalt, and, though there is much to observe on the aesthetic front — two beautiful rivers, picturesque architecture, mountainous horizons — public art is sorely missing.
This is not a diss; it is merely an objective observation. After all, it’s not as though some sort of urban-design commandment was issued from on-high mandating all municipalities must be dense with statuary.
Still, many similarly beauteous Colorado mountain towns — Breckenridge, Paonia and Carbondale among them — long ago aggressively jumped on the public art bandwagon. But Basalt has clearly lagged behind.
Jeff Orsulak is confident that will change over the course of the next few years.
Orsulak, chairman of the Basalt Public Arts Commission (BPAC) since its inception several years ago, is quick to emphasize that Basalt is hardly an artistic wasteland.
He points to the Art Base in Old Town and the Temporary in Willits Town Center as examples of Basalt’s dedication to all things artsy. He further points to the five-piece Motio-2.0 sculpture that was unveiled at five separate sites around town in June 2017 at a cost of $50,000.
While Orsulak concedes that Basalt still has a long ways to go before it gains a reputation as a public-arts mecca, he is of the opinion there is much to be gained from being late to the party.
“There’s opportunity for us starting a little later,” Orsulak says. “We can learn from Carbondale, Breckenridge, Crested Butte and Boulder. They’re all good in different ways.”
First things first.
According to Orsulak, BPAC is a collection of artists, folks interested in public art, representatives from the local schools, a representative from the The Arts Campus at Willits and people affiliated with the Art Base. Sometimes there are members from the Basalt Area Chamber of Commerce. BPAC currently has five members and is looking to add a few more.
“We are an officially recognized town committee,” Orsulak says. “We were put together by ordinance. We are still trying to figure out our role and we are looking for input. This group is still finding its sea legs.”
Orsulak is a project manager at Lipkin Warner Design and Planning — the entity behind Willits Town Center — where he has worked for 18 years. A native of Virginia, he serves on the executive board The Arts Campus at Willits, which operates the Temporary, a facility that in two short years has become one of the entertainment mainstays of the entire Roaring Fork Valley. Though he does not consider himself to be an artist, he understands the role that a vibrant arts culture can play in the socio-economic evolution of a small town.
“I think you realize that, when you have these great arts organizations, they feed off each other,” he says. “Entrepreneurs and creative people find the place more intriguing. When people are looking for a place to set up shop, to start a business, to move to, or to move back to, they want to be able to have galleries, music and lectures. We’re starting to have that in Basalt. A vibrant arts community helps attract higher-paying jobs.”
Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney agrees.
“My personal feelings on it are that [public art] offers a sense of place and can be a point of pride for the community,” Mahoney says. “I also think that it can be a driver of economic development. It’s an element of community that can have a real positive effect on the social, cultural and economic well-being of our town.”
The process of gearing up a more vibrant public arts program does not just happen.
Several BPAC members made a presentation to the town council in December that was part update and part notice that things are beginning to happen.
First, the BPAC is currently in negotiations to extend the stay of the Motio-2.0 sculptures, the lease for which is due to run out in a couple months. (Please see sidebar.)
Next BPAC updated the council on the group’s master planning process, which Orsulak says will coincide with the town’s own master plan process.
And it’s not like BPAC is having to host a bake sale to raise funds. At this juncture, they have about $100,000 in the bank, which, for comparison purposes, is five times Carbondale’s annual public-arts budget.
“We’ve got funding set aside for us,” Orsulak says. “When we developed Park Modern here in Willits, we set aside a transfer assessment for the arts. The town is using that to fund us. It’s nice it’s not coming out of general find, that we’re not taking money out of the mouths of babes.”
The question then becomes what to do with all that money.
The answer, in large part, will come when the BPAC’s master plan is complete.
But Orsulak is of the opinion that large purchases for permanent public arts pieces likely will not be a big part of the equation.
“Public art has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. “Public art used to be about ‘putting that there. We have this sculpture, we’re going to put this here.’ The vision for how public art can help a community with its arts economy and how it can help a community become stronger and have better roots is really changing. Public art is more than just objects, it’s a way of thinking how a community works, how you do events, how you bring artists into a community.
“Breckenridge is a good example,” Orsulak continues. “They have a fantastic program, one of the best in the state. They have a whole art district, artists in residence, multiple facilities, a fantastic lights festival. Their program is far more than simply putting a statue on a corner.”
Related: Considering Motio-3.0
With the BPAC master plan process destined to take the better part of 2019, however, Orsulak is of the opinion that his group needs to do something fairly immediate that is visible. Therefore, the ongoing discussions to keep Motio-2.0, designed by Winn Earl Buzzell Jr., in town for another year.
“Basalt has a lot of great public space, much of which is not getting utilized as much as it should,” Orsulak says. “We would like to use this piece to activate one of the public spaces in Basalt that’s maybe not getting utilized. It could be anywhere. We will be sitting down with the Parks, Open Space and Trails Committee to get their input. A lot of public art pieces are placed in prominent places, not necessarily pedestrian-active places. We want to put it in a place where it will be actively engaged. With the five pieces spread around town, people can tell they are related, but they’re not sure how related. That will change when the pieces come together.”
Even while the negotiation with Demiurge and Buzzell is ongoing, BPAC’s attention will be focused on formulating its master plan. The commission will be keeping an open mind while engaging in what Orsulak jokingly calls concept plagiarizing.
“There’s so much good stuff out there,” he says. “Why should we spend millions of dollars on a public art master plan when Boulder already did one that we can look at? We need to walk before we run.”
When asked what he would envision Basalt’s public arts scene to be like in, say, five years, Orsulak is circumspect.
“Basalt has its own vision,” he says. “Buying permanent art is difficult for a community, because everyone needs to get on board with what you’re getting and you’ve got it forever. A lot of communities have sculptures, have permanent pieces, but many aren’t all that exciting. We have to think long term and think about involving as much of the community as possible.
“Carbondale rotates a lot of pieces out,” Orsulak continues. “I think that’s a great program. We’re discussing some of those things. We really hope we can learn from all those other communities, learn what’s successful and what isn’t. A lot of these art communities, they’re shifting their arts dollars to less procurement of permanent work and more procurement of experiential things. The arts organizations that are blossoming are the ones that are focusing on the experience of the viewer and creating interactions. Getting new stuff helps keep you energized.”
Whatever direction BPAC opts to take, it can only undertake projects with the blessing of the town council, which must approve all expenditures. That could be interesting.
“A general feeling by council is that there be more physical art throughout the community,” Mahoney says. “Experiential art is also supported but seems to be a secondary focus.”