LOCAL COLOR/Celebrating street life
Annually, from November 15 to April 15, visitors and residents converge at Main Street in Mesa, Ariz., to survey a motley collection of sculptures that includes cowboys, dancers, panda bears and pigs. The pieces are part of Sculptures in the Streets, an annual event that attracts traffic and commerce to the city’s growing downtown.
“People love the sculptures. And they don’t just look at them; they interact with them,” says Dave Wilson, communications coordinator for Mesa Town Center Corp. (MTCC), a private non-profit organization that promotes and manages Mesa Town Center. “I look out my window and always see kids climbing and jumping on them, and people posing and taking pictures.”
Like many other cities in recent years, Mesa recognized the unique and nostalgic appeal of its historic downtown and began investing in the area several years ago. One major project, a $14 million streetscape renovation in 1998, involved widening sidewalks, planting trees and improving lighting. It failed, however, to attract the amount of interest the city had anticipated.
So when downtown businessman and former mayor Wayne Pomeroy came across an outdoor sculpture project while visiting Stamford, Conn., he thought it might be just what Mesa needed. Upon his return, he approached MTCC to discuss bringing a similar project to the town center, which serves as the city’s central business district and original, square-mile townsite. The group agreed that sculpture would complement the downtown galleries and held its first annual Sculptures in the Streets in 1999.
For the first few years, the event featured work only from J. Seward Johnson Jr., an artist known for his life-like bronze sculptures. “People liked the pieces, but we needed some variety,” Wilson says. This year, the exhibit includes 76 sculptures from more than 30 artists. Many are playful, such as “Ham ‘N Eggs,” a bronze replica of a chicken resting on the back of a content, smiling pig. Other memorable pieces include a newspaper delivery boy, donated by the family who used to own and publish the local paper, and “Sonance,” an interactive steel sculpture that rings when struck. To direct visitors, the city offers a 24-page guide with a map, and volunteers from the East Valley Retired Senior Volunteer Program give tours.
Residents enjoy having the creations around so much that the city began buying some of them for a permanent collection three years ago. The year-round display now includes 22 pieces. The number acquired every year depends on funds, but the city has committed to buying at least one. The sculptures, ranging in price from $550 to $78,000, also can be purchased by the public.
The exhibit is funded by more than 50 private sponsors, such as a car dealership and area banks. “The sculptures are sometimes criticized as a waste of taxpayer money,” Wilson says. “So, we’ve made sure that isn’t a problem.” The city provides approximately $10,000 to the project annually, which averages to about 2 cents per resident. “If people want to complain, then they can throw their 2 cents in,” he says.
Sculptures in the Streets is helping the city define itself as a center of sculpture, as is a $95 million art center currently under construction. “There are a lot of other downtowns in the area with their own identities,” Wilson says. “Phoenix has sports, Scottsdale has art.” With a couple hundred thousand visitors to the exhibit every year and increased sales for area business owners, Mesa can claim the art form as a unique part of its downtown renaissance.