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Imagine living in a community everyone describes as being special, livable or memorable. Did you imagine a place with a state-of-the-art hospital or a place where you feel safe? While these qualities are important to the success of a community, you more likely pictured an interesting space offering a rich diversity of experiences. The look of a place and what happens there are important ingredients in the recipe for a livable community. In fact, some would argue they rank among the highest. According to a 2012 study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed approximately 43,000 people in various cities, “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness” and the “aesthetics of a place — its art, parks and green spaces” ranked higher than education, safety and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.”

An increasing number of communities are finding ways to make available the social and aesthetic qualities that people desire. The job of providing or encouraging these qualities may involve several different community resources, but the local recreation department is a key player. The social nature of recreation is the common thread that binds the diverse resources, facilities, and settings together. In other words, settings and facilities require human use or appreciation to be successful.

One way communities are attracting people to particular settings is to include public art as a part of the landscape. Public art is essentially defined by its location in a public place, whether it is indoors or outdoors. Some suggest public art may be one of a community’s most overlooked and underappreciated cultural resources. However, the aforementioned Knight Foundation survey found Philadelphia residents ranked viewing public art as the second most popular activity in the city, besting hiking, jogging, and biking.

Public art can help give identity to a community and become a symbol of that place. Iconic public art pieces have the potential to attract tourists and indirectly contribute to the local economy. Tourists who come to experience public artwork may spend the night at a local hotel, eat in local restaurants and buy souvenirs. According to a 2014 study by Americans for the Arts, tourists seeking cultural experiences typically spend more money than tourists who do not. For this reason, many communities, both large are small, are developing public art programs as an economic development strategy.

Hot Art in Hot Springs

In 1959, Philadelphia became the first city to generate funding assistance for public art through its Percent for Art Program. The program requires developers to contribute a percentage of construction costs toward the purchase of public art as a condition of redevelopment. Since then, small communities and rural towns with fewer resources have developed innovative ways to provide public art experiences. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, where recreation personnel and budget dollars are minimal, many opportunities to experience public art have been created through excellent community relations and partnerships with local citizens, civic groups, clubs, churches, etc.

Along the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail, the city parks and trails department has managed to provide a large number of public art pieces with minimal expense by fostering a cooperative relationship with artists and citizens. For example, a fountain representing a cairn, or a stack of stones marking an important spot on a trail, was constructed along the trail by an Eagle Scout as a public service project. The Scout worked with the city parks and trails department to site the project, acquire construction materials and build the project. The fountain marks the crossing of trails and the importance of the greenway as a resource in Hot Springs. Furthermore, it is a way of referencing the beauty of the rocks, streams, and mountains surrounding the city of Hot Springs.

The city also created a Sculpture Garden along the trail near the farmers market pavilion by reaching out to the community for help. While several pieces were purchased by the city-sponsored Arts Advisory Committee during healthy budget years, many of the sculptures were provided as gifts from supportive and generous citizens. Other sculptures were loaned, which allows portions of the trail to change when the sculptures are replaced. In addition to enhancing the trail environment, the Sculpture Garden provides the city with an opportunity to offer art programming related to the sculptures.

The Artful Use of Volunteers

The citizens and organizations who volunteer for the Hot Springs Parks and Trails Department are another way the city minimizes the cost of providing public art. The Arts Advisory Committee was formed by the city to assist with the provision and promotion of public art experiences in Hot Springs. The committee members not only provide assistance in securing funding for public art, but they also give interpretive tours of sculptures in the Sculpture Garden during festivals and special events.

After the farmer’s market pavilion was dedicated in 2010, the city installed landscaping around the pavilion and worked with the Garland County Master Gardeners to maintain it. Although landscaping is not typically considered a form of public art, a landscape design utilizes all the elements of art (form, color, texture, shape, etc.) and principles of design (rhythm, unity, etc.) employed by traditional art forms. Because it also changes with the seasons, a well-designed landscape can be just as effective as a sculpture or mural in providing a setting with thought-provoking interest. The city’s partnership with the Garland County Master Gardeners and the citizens who provide interpretative services in the Sculpture Garden is an innovative and cost-effective way of maintaining and interpreting the public art associated with the farmer’s market setting.

Creative Partnerships

Because Hot Springs has many galleries, organizations, artists and other art resources, the city has many opportunities to offer public art. Through a partnership with the Hot Springs Fine Arts Center, for example, free monthly performances, crafts, and music are offered in one of the city’s downtown parks. In addition to partnering, the city also supports and encourages the individual efforts of related groups and organizations to provide public art experiences. There exists a range of excellent art events, performances and festivals offered to the public by the private and nonprofit sector. Likewise, many of the city’s best murals were originally created as advertisements. Because these types of art projects support the efforts of the city to create a unique and authentic sense of place in Hot Springs, the city works to support them. This means the city makes a special effort to assist and encourage others by providing information and settings for programs, and by crafting ordinances that allow for expression, innovation, and preservation. By encouraging and supporting the private sector in its effort to offer opportunities to experience art, a smaller burden is placed on the city to be the main art provider.

Perhaps the most valuable thing a city recreation program can do to encourage and provide public art experiences is to develop a positive working relationship with the community. When citizens and organizations understand and respect city efforts, they are more willing to cooperate, contribute and care.

Impactful Public Art on a Dime

Want to provide more public art in your community, but don’t have the budget? Consider these tips utilized by the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas:

  • Solicit donations: Many of the sculptures in the Hot Springs Sculpture Garden and easements for the Creek Greenway Trail were donated to the city.
  • Recruit volunteers: Hot Springs relies on assistance from volunteers to maintain landscaping, give interpretive tours of the sculpture garden and monitor the city trails.
  • Partner with community organizations: Hot Springs partners with many diverse organizations to provide art programs.
  • Encourage and support private and nonprofit efforts to provide art: It reduces the burden on the city. Hot Springs assists by disseminating information, providing settings, revising development ordinances to allow for more creativity and by having a mind open to possibilities.
  • Develop a positive working relationship with the community: When a community believes in an effort, they are more likely to volunteer, donate and partner.
  • Budget for routine maintenance and cleaning: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the National Recreation and Park Association and Parks & Recreation magazine (2016-09-01, Feature, by Kevin Riley, Ed.D., Sarah Riley, NBCT, MAT, MLA, and Jean Wallace, BSA)

Kevin Riley, an Assistant Professor of Recreation, Natural Resource Management, in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletic Training at Henderson State University and a member of the Parks & Recreation magazine editorial advisory boardSarah Riley, NBCT, MAT, MLAis an Art Teacher with the Lake Hamilton School District in Pearcy, Arkansas. Jean Wallace, BSAis the Parks and Trails Director for the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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