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What happened to ‘Common Threads,’ an art piece built by Durango residents?

Project was to be installed in medians near DoubleTree intersection
Tommy Crosby, economic opportunity manager with the city of Durango, looks over the “Common Threads” art sculpture panels on Thursday that the city has in storage. The panels have been stored since 2019 for the lack of a contractor willing to install the art project in the median at the intersection of U.S. Highways 550 and 160 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Common Threads,” an art sculpture consisting of 19 steel panels depicting iconic features of Durango, is among the most collaborative public art projects in the city of Durango’s history. Hundreds of residents, schoolchildren and artists worked to create the display, which aims to capture the essence of life in Durango.

The panels were slated to be installed in the raised medians on Camino del Rio near U.S. Highway 160, commonly referred to as the DoubleTree intersection in Durango.

Despite the sculpture’s completion in 2019, hardly anyone has laid eyes on the steel panels that were to span 150 feet. Instead, the panels are stored at a warehouse. Apparently, the city of Durango has been unable to find a contractor willing to install them for the right price.

Durango Creative Economy Manager Tommy Crosby said five requests for bids have been published since the sculpture’s completion, but each one has ended in failure. What used to be a $45,000 installation is now being advertised to contractors as a $75,000 project.

Just finding a contractor willing to do the work is the biggest barrier to getting the “Common Threads” community art piece installed, Crosby said.

Residents selected “Common Threads,” a concept by Durango artists Allison Leigh Smith and Bryce Pettit, for the U.S. Highway 550/160 intersection several years ago. The piece was completed in 2019 and incorporates symbols submitted by residents that resemble those in the pictured rendering. (Courtesy of city of Durango/Durango Herald file)

Each of the 19 steel panels are 8 feet by 4 feet large, he said. And the median where the sculpture is planned to be installed is in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s right of way and would require installation crews to work at night.

“If you’re familiar with the median metal at the 160/550 intersection, it’s full of rocks,” Crosby said. “So you need a contractor to remove that top layer of rocks. Just enough to plant cylindrical concrete footers, which steel posts would then go down into. And on those steel posts, the steel ‘Common Threads’ panels would be mounted.”

Residents are wondering why the “Common Threads” art piece completed in 2019 hasn’t been installed at the U.S. Highway 550/160 intersection, adjacent to the location of the controversial Arc of History sculpture, as was planned. Tommy Crosby said contractors aren’t interested in taking the project on because it is a complicated project that would have to be done in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s right of way. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Local and regional contractors have been staying busy, which is great for their businesses, but doesn’t mesh well with the scope of the “Common Threads” project, he said.

“It slips in this weird crack of not being quite big enough of a project for a contractor to take on willingly,” he said.

The city has tried to tie the sculpture’s installation to other, larger projects, but so far no one’s shown interest, he said. The city is also open to considering alternative locations such as along the Animas River Trail for the piece’s installation, but the laser-cut steel panels have sharp edges and would need to be reworked if installed in alternative locations.

“We would love to fast-track this installation to actually get this thing up in full view of the public because it’s a fantastic piece of public art that deserves to be seen and on display proudly,” he said.

Residents have been wondering what happened to the art installation.

At a Durango City Council meeting last month, Durango resident Victor Locke pressed the city to move forward with the sculpture’s installation.

He said Mark McWhirter, who performed laser cutting for the panels and donated them for the project, died in 2020 and was never able “to see the fruits of his enormous contribution.”

The city of Durango has stored “Common Threads,” an art sculpture consisting of 19 laser-cut steel panels, since 2019 because it cannot find a contractor willing to install the art project in the median at the intersection of U.S. Highways 550 and 160 in Durango. Four hundred residents, six area schools, six local artists and seven interns contributed to the project that currently sits in storage. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Likewise, other contributors have yet to see the fruits of their labor, including a girl who is now in middle school but was 6 years old when she contributed to the project, Locke said.

He urged City Council, which was scheduled to vote on how to allocate $361,000 in unspent lodgers tax dollars, to consider using those funds to install the “Common Threads” project. City Council put the money to another use.

“Common Threads” came about during an contentious time for public art in Durango.

In July 2014, the controversial Arc of History sculpture was installed at the DoubleTree intersection. The sculpture, described by some as a rock-kebob, was widely mocked and eventually destroyed about a year later by an unknown vandal or vandals. After that, the city set out to find a new piece of public art for the heavily traveled intersection. But this time, it enlisted community involvement.

An evaluation team selected three finalists from 15 concepts, and a city survey was used to determine which one would be installed. “Common Threads” was selected. One of its selling points was that it would incorporate art work from residents, and even allow children and other artists to help create the panels.

Crosby said the seed for “Common Threads” was planted when the city was awarded a $25,000 matching National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2017.

But public art is a tricky endeavor: No piece of art is going to please everyone.

Scott Smith, Creative Economy Commission chairman, said he has safety concerns about the “Common Threads” sculpture and would prefer to see it installed somewhere other than the highway median.

The piece features a lot of negative space, which would cause a flicker or strobe effect at night as the lights of oncoming traffic shine through the sculpture. And its design is too intricate for drivers to really appreciate the details on the panels as they drive past, he said.

He said he is also concerned people will cross the highway onto the median to get a closer look at the sculpture.

The sculpture has been stuck in no man’s land, which is also an apt description of the median it is planned to be fitted in, he said.

But he understands why residents want to see movement with the piece’s installation. He said he doesn’t personally like the piece at all, but he acknowledges that’s an unpopular opinion.

“There’s a really beautiful side to it: It was a community gathering,” he said. “The objective (logistical) side of it was not successful, in my opinion, because of the challenges of the site. … But most importantly, the man who made these panels and donated them, oh my gosh, we got to do something with these things in his honor.”

Crosby said he would be elated if a contractor took interest in installing the piece for $75,000.

“I would love for any interested contractor to reach out to me directly,” he said. “... We would love to work with a willing partner to get this installed and on display. Because this project deserves to be seen by the community that helped create it.”


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