1 of 9
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
The art at the TRAX station at 200 West between 800 and 900 South is designed to look like a treehouse.

SALT LAKE CITY — What does art do?

Maybe for the scared and uncertain child having to visit the 2nd District and Juvenile Court in the Davis County Courthouse, Dennis Smith's fanciful flying machines will briefly take his mind off his troubles. "These airships manifest our fondest hopes in life," says the Utah Art Council's description of the art, "our desires for security, imagination, intimacy and adventure. Our dreams of being able to fly are in reality metaphors of transcendence."

Maybe the student who walks by Angelo Caravaglia's "Iccarus and Pegasus" sculpture at the Snow College Humanities and Arts Building will think about flying metaphorically, as well. Maybe he will develop faith in his own abilities to reach new heights but also the hazards of trying to fly too high too fast.

Maybe the visitor to the Division of Human Services and Environmental Quality building in Salt Lake city will walk past Yolly Torres' bright, colorful canvas murals depicting places such as "Quiet Morning, Zion National Park" or "Autumn Splendor, Mt. Timpanogos," and feel not only gratitude that he lives in such a beautiful place but also a renewed desire to keep it that way.

Maybe the person driving down a busy, traffic-packed I-15 will notice the artwork carved into the overpass and, for a few minutes at least, will feel a bit less stressed, will think the world seems a bit brighter.

"Without art," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable."

With art, there are unlimited possibilities.

That was the thinking of the Utah Legislature 25 years ago when it established a program that has become known as the "Utah-Percent-For-Art" Act, which provides that a "portion of appropriations for capital expenditures be set aside for the acquisition of art used for public buildings." The act, which went into effect July 1, 1985, requires that 1 percent of hard construction costs be used for commissioned art and has a fourfold purpose:

Enhance the quality of life in the state by placing art of the highest quality in public spaces where it is seen by the general public;

Promote and preserve appreciation for and exposure to the arts;

Foster cultural development in the state;

Encourage the creativity and talents of its artists and craftspeople.

Since that time, says Jim Glenn, Public Art program manager, the state has developed a collection of more than 220 artworks at more than 90 locations all over Utah. The collection encompasses everything from delicate weavings to monumental bronze and stone sculptures, all specific to the site and/or architecture of the agency and the community.

In addition, other agencies and local governments have adopted similar programs; Salt Lake City, Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake County, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Utah Transit Authority, to name a few.

The goal, says Glenn, "is to take art out of galleries and make it a part of our everyday experience. It adds a human touch to our state facilities."

A long tradition

The idea of public art is nothing new, of course. The Greeks believed wholeheartedly in the idea of art that could be viewed in appreciated by the whole community. Early public art there often took the form of sculpture, which was used to grace temples such as the Parthenon in Athens.

The Romans mass-produced statues of their emperor and sent them to all corners of the empire as a reminder of the glory of Rome. Medieval cathedrals were adorned with statues, stained glass, altarpieces and other forms of art. And few pieces even today match those produced during the Italian Renaissance.

One of the more famous pieces of modern public art is the "Chicago Picasso," which was placed on the Daley Plaza in Chicago in 1967. The sculpture by the famous artist is 50 feet tall, weighs 162 tons and cost $351,959 to install (Picasso donated the work).

The first percent-for-art legislation was enacted in Philadelphia in 1959. During the 1980s, it became a popular movement in many other states, with amounts to be designated for art ranging from 0.5 percent to 2 percent of construction costs. Now, some 39 of the 50 states have at least one program.

"Although Utah was not the first to adopt the plan, we have a long history of supporting the arts," says Glenn. "Utah does have the oldest Arts Council in the nation and a long tradition of placing art in public places."

The state currently has more than a dozen public art projects that are planned or in progress. As projects come along, a call for artists is posted on websites and sent out in mailings and emails. Generally, several hundred artists respond. A selection committee is formed for each project, which includes people from the specific location as well as various experts. Finalists are invited to submit a detailed proposal and a scale model of the work. Then the commission is awarded. "We like to give them about a year to complete the work," says Glenn. Some projects take longer than others.

One thing he loves most, "is the democratic nature of the program. It doesn't matter where people are from or their economic circumstances, everyone has the same chances. And art goes to communities large and small."

Selection committees generally look for something that "has pride of place, that will demonstrate a significance to people who visit it. It is meant to contribute to the quality of life in the community, to enhance the lives of all who see it."

A challenging process

Dan Cummings has been involved in several public art projects. Two things about the process are particularly appealing to him. The first is the challenge of coming up with something that fits the site, the purpose, the setting, the mood. It's always fun to see what you can come up with, he says.

As owner of Spectrum Studio, he is primarily known for his glass work, but "I've learned so many other facets of the work, like how to figure the center of gravity for huge stones. This art is done on such a huge scale, so if things go wrong at that level, it's a big wrong." Luckily, nothing has.

The second thing Cummings especially likes is that it is public art. "There's a definite sense of satisfaction is knowing that it will be seen by thousands, maybe even a million people instead of being tucked away in a high-end residential home where it looks great, but only a few people see it."

One of his projects was art for the TRAX station on 200 West between 800 and 900 South. For that one, "we designed it to look kind of like a treehouse. We did molds of the faces of kids who live in the area and cast them in glass."

He and sculptor Mark DeGraffenried also created a sculpture/seating area for the Mountainland Applied Technology College in Lehi. The piece "honors the fields of study offered at the college in sculptural bronze, stone, glass, words and light."

Cummings are Dana Kuglin created a 44-foot high glass sculpture featuring butterflies that breaks into a DNA chain. It hangs in an atrium at Westminster College. Currently, he is working on some large glass installations for a mental health facility at the University of Utah.

Feedback he has received on some of his projects has been gratifying, Cummings says. Students have told him that as they walk in and out or sit by the "Light of Knowledge" sculpture at the technology college, "that it changes how they see life, changes how they make decisions." That's what art does for him, says Cummings, so to have it impact others in that same way means a lot.

Joe O'Connell, an artist based in Tucson, Ariz., who is working on art for the new TRAX Bingham Junction station, says that doing public art is a lot like completing a Sudoku puzzle. "Everything has to line up perfectly." For this one, he says, he wanted something that reflected the history of the area. He wanted it to be interactive for people who are waiting at the platform, but also appealing to people who only see it from the window of the train.

The story that he and his assistants, Blessing Hancock and Nina Borgia-Aberle, "have chosen to tell is inspired by the relationship between the railroad and the Bingham Canyon Mine and the resulting growth Midvale experienced."

Titled "Utah Bit and Mine," it involves two "interactive light sculptures that celebrate the mining and industrial history of Midvale." One is kind of like an X, the other like an O, which "literally and metaphorically represent mining, industry and railroad's relationship to them. They reference the past, yet are technologically advanced with broad appeal, modern materials and a forward-looking, positive message."

It will be in place when the station opens on Aug. 7, and is something, says O'Connell, that can be analyzed in many different ways or it can simply be enjoyed. "With public art, you don't want something that needs a decoder ring. Yet, it has to be able to sustain more scrutiny over time."

The best public art, says O'Connell, offers "something to hang emotions of your own on. It also works as a catalyst for interaction between people. It's there almost as a third member of the conversation to help stimulate talking, stimulate thinking."

Community involvement

TRAX station art is true community project, says Gerry Carpenter, UTA spokesman. "It's done in conjunction with local communities. The city pays a portion of the cost, and UTA offers matching funds."

If you've noticed some undecorated stations, it's because not all communities choose to participate, he says. "But we look on it as a long-term investment. We want our transit properties to reflect the communities. We want something artistic, pleasing to the eye that reflects the history of the area.

The Utah Department of Transportation has a similar goal, says Vic Saunders, spokesman for UDOT's Region One.

Some of the freeway overpasses in northern Utah feature "beautifully cut and shaped farm scenes, cowboy scenes that fit with this area."

He's the first to admit that overpasses can be rather boring. "The idea of the art is to enhance what would otherwise just be a dull piece of concrete."

The challenge they have, says Saunders, is to create something beautiful but not so complex that it is a distraction to drivers. "It has to be something appropriate to being seen from the roadway."

They hope it adds to the experience of driving. "We've heard from a lot of tourists who say they are unique and beautiful. They do catch the attention."

Investment in future

Public art has not been without controversy. Among the most famous examples of art that was not liked when it was first installed are the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the sculpted lions in front of the New York Public Library.

A minimalist sculpture titled "Tilted Arc" was removed from a plaza in New York City in 1989 when nearby officeworkers complained it interfered with their work. A piece called "Traffic Light" installed at a roundabout in East London caused some disruption at first because people thought they were real traffic signals. But by 2005, a survey named it the favorite roundabout in the country.

In Utah, an abstract painting by V. Douglas Snow that was installed in the State Supreme Court Chamber drew such negative comments that a curtain was placed in front of it, to be drawn when court is in session.

"Over the years, we've learned more about how to serve the community," says Glenn. And for the most part, he says, most people see public art "as a great investment of public dollars. It contributes in a small way to economic development, it enhances the quality of life, it adds deeper meaning to our experience. Public art appreciates in value." We are also lucky, he says, that our Legislature "had the foresight to include not only funds for art itself, but also funds for maintenance and conservation." Public art will continue to serve us for years to come, he says.

He echoes the sentiment of the Newport New Public Art Foundation, which says it well: "The impact of public art on a community is priceless and immeasurable. Public art has the power to energize our public spaces, arouse our thinking, transform the places where we live, work and play into more welcoming and beautiful environments that invite interaction. Public art can make strangers talk, children ask questions and calm a hurried life. It enhances the quality of life by encouraging a heightened sense of place and by introducing people to works of art that can touch them and generations to come."

That's what art can do.

Email: [email protected]