Opinion - Wanted: World-class art in Taos public places

By Robert J. Silver, Taos
Posted 3/18/19

In the course of ordinary conversation, our small, quirky, isolated mountain town is roundly, routinely and almost reflexively proclaimed to be “all about art.” We trumpet the message far …

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Opinion - Wanted: World-class art in Taos public places

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In the course of ordinary conversation, our small, quirky, isolated mountain town is roundly, routinely and almost reflexively proclaimed to be “all about art.” We trumpet the message far and wide in our tourism marketing efforts. It’s a claim with verifiable merit. But, if we are to keep faith with Taos’ storied arts identity, our town should be even more fully about art than it already is. Our honored past demands that we be second to none when it comes to art, including public art. Public art should thoroughly and ubiquitously infuse our town’s public places and spaces.

Insiders know that we are already surrounded by public art treasures “hiding in plain sight.” Impressive collections are available for public view, if one knows where to look. There is, for example, a large, cherished visual art collection permanently housed in, of all places, our town firehouse. During quiescent work periods, it springs Brigadoon-like to life as an art gallery. Firefighters are temporarily transformed into virtual docents. Our community hospital, amid its primary life-sustaining medical mission, personifies an art museum. And then there are the WPA-era frescos adorning the walls of Taos’ Old County Courthouse, evoking shared moral and legal precepts. These are but a few of the town’s public art possessions. Perhaps the best service to be done for public art already in place is to trumpet its existence, advertise its location and ease its accessibility.

Nevertheless, a community that roundly and soundly proclaims its arts identity should be at the very forefront of a major pervasive public art array. The world-class creativity of our sculptors, muralists, performance and installation artists and the like should permeate our community, offering it to would-be consumers without need for expert guidance.

But beyond the connection to our cultural and historic DNA, we should also embark on a major public art initiative in our ongoing quest for economic development. An almost certain driver of additional tourism revenue, public art is the quintessential “build it and they will come” proposition. For a community that has seen conflict over development plans that seemed to threaten cherished cultural precepts, public art is a benign progression, the ultimate “green” industry and one of the few common denominators connecting our diverse communities.

In contemplating the potential economic benefit of a noteworthy Taos public art program, Columbus, Indiana, comes to mind. A small and otherwise nondescript location on the unprepossessing Midwestern prairie, the effect on tourism of Columbus’ conscious concentration of excellent architecture is instructive. Architecture-loving tourists throng to Columbus simply to behold the critically acclaimed, intentionally assembled midcentury modern architecture of its public buildings.

While architecture and public art may not be precise synonyms, one need look no farther than Loveland, Colorado, to find a community that has reaped significant tourist dollars through its public art. Why not Taos? With Taos’ myriad additional cultural, historic and environmental treasures, one could easily expect similar tourism revenue return on an investment in world-class public art.

But beyond issues of history, culture, identity and economics, we should do major public art for the nurturing and nourishing of the soul it affords. Art enlightens and energizes. Imagine the inspiration potential of ubiquitous, heroic, grand-scale sculpture; murals that memorialize the means and methods of our lives; pocket performance spaces for expression of poetry, music and song – a veritable community-wide canvas and palette to portray the hopes and dreams of our people. Approaching Taos from the north, there used to be a sign along the highway that read, “Welcome to Taos. Soul of the Southwest.” A major Taos public art program would not merely drive economic development consistent with the history and spirit of this magical place – it would also be good for our collective soul.

A significant public art program will require financial backing. A combination of public, corporate and government financial contributions is expected to accomplish this. A proposal to that effect is under development.

In July 2017, Taos Council directed staff to prepare for council consideration an ordinance in support of public art (art in public places). The draft document was to be ready in October 2017. The ordinance has yet to come before council.

Taos should immediately move ahead with a major public art initiative. It’s ultimately a statement of faith in our future and ourselves. It’s who we are. And if not now, when?

Robert J. Silver lives in Taos.

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