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Foresight and community support make Coeur d’Alene a public arts mecca

Jennifer Drake wasn’t impressed when she first saw “the feathers.”

She couldn’t understand why her city would put two 25-foot metal feathers in the middle of Coeur d’Alene’s busy Northwest Boulevard – one the tail feather of an osprey, the other a wing feather from an eagle.

Now, as a mother of three young children, the fourth-generation Coeur d’Alene native understands the meaning of “Guardians of the Lake” by Washington artists David Govedare and Keith Powell.

It means home.

“It’s a signal to me whenever I return from traveling out of town,” said Drake, chairwoman of the Coeur d’Alene Arts Commission. “I know I’m home.”

The creation by Govedare and Powell was installed in May 2002, funded by a first-of-its-kind ordinance in Idaho dedicated to public art. In 1999, then-Councilwoman Nancy Sue Wallace pushed successfully for a city law that set aside 1.33 percent of the cost for city capital projects to pay for such art.

That ordinance transformed Coeur d’Alene into a public art mecca.

“The people involved in the early stages had no idea how hugely popular public arts would become in Coeur d’Alene,” Drake said. “This is a world-class collection of public art owned by every resident in town. It truly is a testament to the foresight of visionaries.”

Visionary Wallace shrugs off the role she played in establishing the public arts program.

“It sort of snowballed,” she said.

Bundled against the fall morning chill in bright scarves and a jacket, the small, cheerful woman surveyed the eclectic art pieces gracing the McEuen Park promenade along Front Avenue this week. “The Working Man,” a statue of a construction worker with hardhat and tool belt, caught her eye. Dean Haagenson of Contractors Northwest and his wife, Cindy, donated the $50,000 piece after Dean’s company finished a $20 million makeover of McEuen Park in spring 2014.

“This is what I like to see – private money providing art in public places,” she said.

Coeur d’Alene’s public arts collection is funded by three sources: the percent-in-art ordinance, established by Wallace and the 1999 City Council; private contributions; and urban renewal funding.

Tony Berns, executive director of urban renewal agency ignite cda, said his organization recognizes the value of public art in improving a community’s quality of life and attracting business. The agency sets aside 2 percent of its annual revenue for public art. To date, the agency has contributed $1.1 million since 1997 to the Lake Urban Redevelopment District in downtown Coeur d’Alene and $366,000 to the River Urban Redevelopment District in the Riverstone area near the western entrance to Coeur d’Alene.

All three funding sources are in play at McEuen Park.

Public art at the park includes: a swinging bench and a bronze heron donated in memory of the late Dr. Maj StormoGipson, a local pediatrician remembered for her charitable work in Latin America; a giant sundial contributed by Parkwood Business Properties; a carving of the U.S. flag and an eagle from wood salvaged from the park’s original Freedom Tree, which was dedicated in 1972 to Coeur d’Alene prisoner of war Fred McMurray.; “Allium Spring Chorus,” a composition of three metal structures that resemble a dandelion or wild onion that tinkles when the wind blows; children’s book characters Mudgy and Millie.

And the controversial “Under the Rainbow” bridge at the entrance.

The community was underwhelmed by “Under the Rainbow,” a large, white, forked contraption connected by 14 cables that rotate through the color spectrum at night when most of the community is home. Some conservative critics groused that it paid subtle homage to the LGBT movement. Others simply considered it ugly and a waste of money. Members of the Arts Commission have tried to fix technical and aesthetic problems.

Drake, who is in her sixth and term-limited final year as chairwoman of the Arts Commission, admits “Under the Rainbow” was a learning experience. The product differed significantly from the preliminary submitted by the artist. “It wasn’t what we expected,” she said.

The Arts Commission has weathered several controversies.

Some questioned the use of public money to carve woodland creatures on the trunks of trees leveled by city work crews at City Park. “Guardians of the Lake” was dismissed by a columnist for the Coeur d’Alene Press as “a fourth-grade class arts project.”

In 2011, members of the Kootenai County Constitution Party condemned the “godless group of individuals” who managed the public arts program when a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha was located in downtown Coeur d’Alene for a year under the ArtCurrents program.

Critics also dismissed as “poop art” the seven, large welded sculptures by local artist Allen Dodge representing microbes used to break down sewage at the wastewater treatment plant. That criticism overlooks the art’s educational value, Drake said.

“It’s an attention-grabber,” said Drake, noting the student field trips that visit the sewer plant. “It’s more interesting than someone droning on about bacteria.”

Few criticize the city’s Utility Box Beautification Project.

In 2012, the Arts Commission invited artists, graphic designers, photographers, illustrators and others within a 100-mile radius of Coeur d’Alene to decorate the city’s utility boxes. They responded, transforming the dull objects into an artists’ gallery of paintings and photography.

Communities throughout the region have contacted Coeur d’Alene to ask about the painted boxes.

More public art is on the way.

“The Working Man” will be joined by four other sculptures in the future, representing industries that have helped build the Coeur d’Alene area, including farming, logging and mining. A new public arts piece will decorate the western roundabout on Fort Ground Boulevard, separating City Park from Memorial Field. New pieces in the art-on-loan ArtsCurrent program are being installed in downtown Coeur d’Alene. And an estimated $750,000 water feature memorial to fallen Coeur d’Alene Sgt. Greg Moore is under construction near the Veterans Memorial Plaza at McEuen Park.

“We enjoy diversifying things and finding areas of the town that are underserved by public art,” Drake said of the Arts Commission. “We want to find art that will please someone like my parents who are in their 60s and lived here all their lives, as well as something for the new business executive who has just moved into town.”

Public art is now part of Coeur d’Alene’s DNA.

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