STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
On Monday morning outside the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot, a man wearing sunglasses, a goatee and heavy black combat boots posed in front of “Whinney and Friends,” a bronze sculpture of recumbent horses, smiling, as his identically dressed friend snapped a picture.
Like thousands of tourists before them, they were reveling in Durango’s public-art collection, which, said Sherri Dugdale, the city’s public information officer, was recently appraised as being worth more than $1 million.
In 2005, the collection was valued at just $675,000.
How Durango – a small town with a strong, though not traditionally affluent, artistic tradition – came to acquire such a font of public art in just seven years and despite the recession is largely the story of the Durango Public Art Commission, its longtime chairwoman Carol Martin and Phyllis Alden, who has donated more than half a million dollars in sculpture since 2003.
Martin is a jewelry designer who grew up in Colorado. She planned to be a dentist until college, when she visited Florence, Italy.
“It changed my whole perspective on life,” said Martin.
Sherri Dugdale said Martin’s contribution to public art in Durango was unparalleled, pointing to her uninterrupted tenure on the art commission.
“She must be doing something right,” said Dugdale.
Alden is more mysterious. Her friends say she spent about 10 years in Durango, but now lives part time in Florida and part time in Italy, near the Amalfi Coast. Political donations place her in Durango in 2007, when, according to Federal Election Commision receipts, she worked as a self-employed investor. In 2003, she donated the “Life Wall,” a 40-piece collection of portraits cast in bronze by Willa Shalit and Dean Ericson that now stands at the library, currently valued at more than $250,000.
In 2012, she donated four sculptures to Durango, valued at just less than $400,000.
Martin, who met Alden through her gallery, described her as “very private.”
Despite multiple attempts, Alden could not be reached for comment.
The Public Art Commission unofficially began in 1998.
“Chiara Amoroso, Brian Wagner, Phyllis Alden: Those were three key people. Then we started working with the city,” Martin said.
It swiftly organized the installation of pieces loaned by Alden on East Second Avenue: “Puck” and “Mudra,” bronze sculptures by Elizabeth McQueen, and “My Children,” a bronze by Allan Houser.
Because of its early success, the city made the Art Commission official in 2004, selecting Martin as its chairwoman.
But times got rocky in 2005, when the committee recommended that Michael Clapper, a Denver-based sculptor, build a $50,000 sculpture in Three Springs – of which $20,000 was to be financed by the city, $20,000 by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and $10,000 by Mercy Regional Medical Center.
At the time, an unscientific Durango Herald online poll found “67.3 percent polled” disliked Clapper’s proposed sculpture.
As a result of the controversy, Martin said that the Southern Ute Tribe declined to fund the sculpture. Afterward, the commission altered its selection process so the public could react to pieces before it made a selection. Martin said.
“That was the beginning of our public art ‘call to artists’ process. We actually have not had a controversial piece since then. I think people love being involved in the process. It’s public art, so they take ownership in it.”
The committee’s tastes also evolved.
“We’re careful to select pieces that are more representational. We’re not trying to push the envelope in terms of cutting-edge work. We’re getting wonderful work that can be enjoyed by the majority of people,” Martin said.
Navigating the downturn
When the recession hit in 2008, the city reduced its financial support for public art to subsistence levels, so the commission instituted a program whereby local artists loan their work to the city for one or two years, and local businesses underwrite more ambitious projects.
Three months ago, it asked Bank of Colorado to fund a design competition to commemorate Durango’s hosting the USA Pro Cycling Challenge this summer. The Bank ponied up $20,000.
“The Bank of Colorado was thrilled to support public art in Durango. It’s part of what makes this town unique,” said John Dowling, local bank president.
“Venture,” the winning design by Josh Weiner, will appear in the Florida Road roundabout near Chapman Hill.
Martin said there are many suitable sites for public art.
“One new piece is going behind the botanical gardens at the library. There are places along the Animas River Trail that we’ve designated as great for art. And we’re relocating the pumas to a puma reserve,” said Martin, referring to the 11 puma sculptures that the San Juan Mountain Association has strewn across Durango.
Martin wants Durango to be recognized as an art destination.
“We’re a small town. We can’t compare ourselves to Florence, galleries like in Santa Fe. But so many people vacation, retire, raise kids and live here because of the culture. We just want to keep enriching that,” Martin said.
Asked why public art was important, Martin produced a five-sentence written statement that she had prepared, unprompted, ahead of the interview. “Public art contributes to a city’s visual character, texture and history,” said Martin, reading aloud. On concluding, she looked up. “Phyllis Alden would tell you the same thing,” she said.