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Public valley art gets the roundabout treatment

Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

In the valley, people are passionate about their roundabouts. Along with improving safety and traffic flow, roundabouts are also used as defacto gallery spaces. But with new public art popping up in these places so are questions and complaints.

Of course, every town is a little different but they all seemed to have gotten stuck in the same controversies. First, the public wants a say on their public art. Also, there are actual safety concerns. And then, there’s this funny collaboration between traffic engineers, government officials and artists.

Let’s start in Silt, where a new centerpiece was installed last month.


“The statuary is about 7 feet tall, two blue herons standing in what appear to be some reeds, similar to what you would find on the Colorado River,” said the Town of Silt Mayor Rick Aluise. “They are indigenous to the area.”


He described the new sculpture as part of the town’s effort to rebrand itself. The former centerpiece depicted a nude rock climber and it became the butt of a lot of jokes. Locals called it the “round-a-butt.” But Aluise said there’s another reason the first sculpture was so problematic.


“The previous centerpiece was so large that it was difficult to see cars that might have been coming from the other direction, to see what was in the roundabout and what wasn’t,” he said.  


Aluise said that the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) did not like the old statue because it obstructed drivers’ views. But Tracy Trulove, the valley’s regional communications manager for CDOT, said sometimes adding artwork can actually increase the safety of roundabouts.


“But a lot of the art that you see that does go in tends to make a situation where the line of sight across the roundabout is protected,” said Trulove, meaning that drivers actually pay more attention to the cars adjacent to them, rather than those across the way. In order for the centerpiece to work, it can’t be distracting, like no butts. Trulove said this creates a dynamic where the traffic engineers become curators to a degree.


“That’s another thing that’s kind of funny about our policy and our guidelines for integrating art is that it can be broad, right?” Trulove contemplated. “Arts a very subjective medium.”


The art part of the process, Trulove said, is up to local municipalities, and can sometimes seem like it’s happening behind closed doors. Usually a philanthropist will commission an artist of their choice to create a work, then present it to the town as a gift. The town can either decide to accept it or reject it, that’s where Trulove sees the most passionate public response. After all, we’re talking about artwork meant to be emblematic of the community.


“It definitely seems like something that local municipalities like to have to highlight or showcase their town,” she said. “I can use the Carbondale roundabout, for example”


James Surls is a modernist sculptor based in Carbondale. He designed his town’s roundabout sculpture called “Sewing the Future.” It was installed in 2014.


“There often is controversy between an arts council and the artist ,not on a personal level but on a formality level,” Surls said. “...Of how it was all handled, and who introduced it, and how it was voted on, and when it was approved to go to the next step.”


He said it’s important for both the town and the artist to be cognisant of what is being placed in a roundabout.


“It’s there, speaking for a bigger group of people than just that artist that made it,” said Surls. “So, meaning, content, symbolism, metaphoric realities in it, those all have to come to bear, should all be discussed. The town should know what they’re getting beforehand.”


Surls said he received loads of support when he presented his work to Carbondale’s Town Council. But not everyone showed signs of approval.


“I don’t think that’s unusual, to tell you the truth,” Surls said.


Groundwork for a new installation began last week in a Snowmass Village roundabout. Travis  Elliott is the assistant town manager. For this piece of art, there were national regulations at play.


“Sight line distances, how big it is, all of that was taken into consideration,” said Elliott. “So the sculpture itself was designed with that in mind, so it fits all of those restrictions.”


But also, the public wanted a say in the design. The piece, sculpted by South Dakota artist laureate Dale Claude Lamphere, has become an object of controversy among residents.


The sculpture – made of stainless steel and creek rock – is meant to capture the beauty and speed of downhill skiing. But locals say the representation of the town should have been designed by a local. Again, Elliott points out that public officials were the curators in this process.


“The town went through a lengthy public input process through our Snowmass Arts Advisory Board and the planning commission, and they ultimately recommended to the town council that we accept the sculpture,” said Elliott.


The piece, working title “Double Black Diamond,” is scheduled for installation in July.



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