It’s time, Wichita: Make public art a priority

To witness the value of public art in Wichita, you have only to visit the Keeper of the Plains on a summer evening.

There, where Blackbear Bosin’s 44-foot steel sculpture towers above the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, you’ll see residents and tourists strolling along footbridges toward the base of the Keeper to watch the “Ring of Fire” ignite.

They snap photos and post them on Instagram. They read about the history of Native Americans in Wichita. They gaze at the Wichita skyline. They search for the troll sculpture in his hidey-hole under a grate near the Keeper.

Art enriches and elevates public spaces. It brings people together. It educates, captivates, uplifts and inspires.

So it’s time for city leaders to recognize art’s worth and make it a priority: Enact a “percent-for-art ordinance,” which would set aside 1 percent of Wichita’s capital-improvement project budget and earmark it for public art projects.

The benefits of public art are well documented. But because they’re considered “soft” benefits — aesthetic beauty, inspiration and general improvement of the urban environment — it’s easy to dismiss them as a low priority, particularly when budgets are tight.

However, some key public art projects right here in Wichita over the past several years have transformed public spaces and proved art’s inherent and lasting value:

  • A mural painted on a north Wichita grain elevator — designed by Colombian street artist GLeo as part of the Horizontes project — set a Guinness world record and is attracting photographers and other visitors from across the country.
  • An effort to decorate buildings in the Douglas Design District lit a fire under area artists and sparked a grant that will help add more murals and other enhancements to the burgeoning neighborhood.
  • Gallery Alley, an outdoor pop-up art gallery at 616 E. Douglas in Old Town, turned unused space into a vibrant gathering space for Final Friday art shows and other events.
  • And Wichita’s collection of downtown sculptures, from the “Tripodal” outside Century II to Georgia Gerber’s bronze statues depicting the historic Dockum Drug Store sit-in, have enhanced the city’s walkability.

It’s time to acknowledge that robust beginning and build on it, by guaranteeing that every public project undertaken in Wichita will involve artists and have a public art component.

Granted, because art is subjective, communities often experience public art controversies. In Petaluma, California, residents are deeply divided over a proposed installation titled “Fine Balance,” which features Victorian claw-foot bathtubs on stilts. In Wichita two decades ago, folks griped about the “circle of light” columns at Central and McLean, which many saw as a waste of public funds.

Nevertheless, art advocates are smart to push for an ordinance now. The City Council recently approved an $83 million baseball stadium development in downtown Wichita, which will include a pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River. At the same time, an advisory committee has called for a new performing arts center, and others are pushing for a new convention center to replace Century II.

As any or all of those major civic projects move forward, it’s only right to ensure that they’re beautiful as well as useful.