Our art, ourselves

On a Tuesday every two months, a group of local artists and art aficionados gather to weigh in on public art in Breckenridge. The Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC) is a volunteer standing committee of the board of directors for Breckenridge Creative Arts, and its role is to oversee a thoughtful process of integrating artworks into public spaces.

“Public art is a reflection of our community,” said co-chair Amy Evans, a local landscape painter who has been a member of the PAAC since its formation three years ago. “It raises awareness of the importance of arts in the community, and it enhances the character of our town.”

The Town of Breckenridge began investing in public art more than 20 years ago with the installation of Robert Tully’s collection of granite and steel sculptures, evocative of our mining past, in Blue River Plaza. Since then, the permanent collection has grown to 31 pieces.

“Our job is to look at the collection—what’s missing, what can be put in, and how to make the collection grow in terms of presence in the art world,” said PAAC co-chair Marsha Cooper. During the years she and Evans spent on the now-dissolved Public Art Commission, Cooper worked aggressively to increase the Town’s collection by securing donors and advocating for public art. Now, she says, it’s not simply about growing the collection, but making it more varied and robust.

“Initially our collection was very local, and then we expanded out to the state, and regionally,” she said. “Now we are expanding nationally and internationally. That’s how the collection will develop and grow, and that’s very exciting.”

“We are being more thoughtful about everything,” Evans added. “We went through a big process of how to determine how the collection fits into people’s perspective of what Breckenridge really is and what it represents.”

That process, undertaken by members of the PAAC with Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) staff members, involved brainstorming and describing the elements of local identity that contribute to a strong sense of Breckenridge as a place. For example, everyone agreed Breckenridge is known for its striking natural beauty and its rich and varied history as a mining town turned skiers’ mecca. People are here for outdoor recreation, from snow sports to biking, hiking, and fishing; and they tend to be concerned about the environment. These “thematic narratives,” outlined in the new Breckenridge Public Art Master Plan and Policy, become selection criteria that ensure new public artworks represent the beliefs, values, and ideals that the Breckenridge community holds dear.

“We started by looking at the entire collection,” Evans explained. “Some pieces speak to our heritage and history; some speak to our surroundings; some speak to winter sports. We’ve looked at all that to think about how we go forward. Now the focus is on how we can increase the quality and depth of our collection.”

In the three years since its formation, the PAAC has been involved in the purchase and/or installation of several new pieces in the Town’s collection, including “Prowlin,’” a fabricated steel sculpture in the likeness of a fox; “Sack Race,” a bronze piece donated by the Bunchman family; “Tom’s Baby,” which memorializes the Breckenridge discovery of the largest gold nugget in Colorado; and “Toro,” a robot made of upcycled steel donated by the partners at Downstairs at Eric’s.

“‘Toro’ has made for a fun and quite popular piece of art for children,” Cooper said. “It gives children the opportunity to interact and respond. It also gives adults the opportunity to think about that response, and their own personal response to the art.”

The PAAC is also involved in discussions about “Syncline,” a 24-foot-tall, azure blue, abstract steel sculpture by Albert Paley, commissioned by the Town in 2014. Breckenridge will be the first Colorado town to own a work by the internationally renowned sculptor, helping to raise its profile on the world arts scene.

“I think people will travel here just to see ‘Syncline,’” said PAAC member Carl Scofield, who has lived and worked in Breckenridge as a freelance photographer for more than three decades. “Overall it’s just enhancing the experience of our town.”

“There’s a lot of discussion about public art not being something pleasing to everyone, and why we think that’s a good thing,” said PAAC member and longtime local architect Darci Hughes, acknowledging the mixed opinions that have surfaced around the contemporary piece. “It creates discussion. Having an open and active dialog in the town is wonderful thing—that, in and of itself, gets a community involved.”

The Public Art Advisory Committee recently advised on a new, more robust maintenance program for the existing collection, and it weighs in when artworks need to be relocated or deaccessioned from the public art collection. Under discussion now is what to do with “Double Axle”—the large, translucent, spiral-shaped piece by David Griggs that hangs in the Breckenridge Recreation Center— now that the rec center is under construction. For a while the committee was also discussing what to do with “The Nest”—the large, stainless steel work topped by two bronze eagles at the intersection of Main and Ridge. Once hard to see, the piece has since benefitted from landscaping improvements and now forms a visual focal point in front of the new Residence Inn.

Another key initiative of the PAAC has been to promote education around public art. The group, with staff guidance, helped bring about the retooled, docent-led Art Around Town walking tours, now offered May to October, as well as the new Breckenridge Public Art + Arts District Audio Tours, accessible by mobile app.

Although many people imagine sculptures when they think of public art, the fact is that any artwork in the public realm—whether a sculpture in a community gathering place or details integrated into functional items like benches and walkways—can be considered public art. Some public art is representational, meaning it depicts a recognizable subject like a child reading. Other art is abstract, inviting viewers to interpret its meaning.

Public art also does not have to permanent— an idea showcased at BCA’s new BIFA and WAVE festivals, and one that Cooper credits CEO Robb Woulfe for helping people understand. Examples include Konstantin Dimopoulos’ “The Blue Trees,” in which local aspen trees were colored cobalt blue for months before gradually fading to white; and Trail Mix, a series of environmental installations and pop-up music performances along local trails.

“People loved Trail Mix; you’re out hiking or biking and you encounter a sculpture made from things in the environment—it just stops you in your tracks,” said Evans. “We’ve had sculptures that move like dinosaurs. We are opening people’s awareness that art can be a lot of different things.”

The rotating outdoor exhibit, Sculpture on the Blue, is another example of temporary or seasonal art. In the past it displayed work by local and regional artists, but has recently been revamped to occupy a flexible time frame and feature work by a single artist. This summer, it takes the form of a three-month installation called “Los Trompos,” a colorful, interactive work by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena that will live outdoors in the Breckenridge Arts District.

“We’ve re-envisioned Sculpture on the Blue in a way that makes it fresh and new, and allows for the exposure of national and international artists,” said Cooper. “The push is outward— to grow the permanent collection, as well as the temporary collection and performance art. I think the Town of Breckenridge has been very wise in pushing the boundaries of art to bring tourism and recognition.”

“We can’t always depend on Mother Nature to provide economic stability,” Evans added. “To think this has only been going on for three years is amazing to me. We’re attracting groups coming here for meetings. We’re getting awards. We’re getting a lot of interesting publicity. Denver is now doing ‘The Blue Trees’— and we were the first in Colorado to have it. I think we are just starting to see the benefits.”

“We are fortunate to have Town leaders who understand the value of a robust public art program as a means to strengthen our community and enhance our already impressive set of cultural assets—but also to ensure Breckenridge remains artistically vibrant and economically competitive in today’s creative economy,” said Woulfe.

“Investing in a public art program the way we have is a bold step that really speaks well about our town,” Scofield concluded. “In all my years living here, Breckenridge has been a fun, unique, creative town that has always had its own identity. People aren’t here just to make money, just to ski, just to invest—they’re here for a lifestyle. Part of the heartbeat of town is doing things uniquely. Our public art is a manifestation of that.”

Breckenridge Creative Arts // breckcreate.org/public-art
Photos: Liam Doran