Smile Politely

Enhancing our community: The Public Art League

Tuesday, June 26 saw the unveiling of 13 sculptures, some of which could be installed around Champaign and Urbana as early as September. The event, put on by the Public Art League, was a huge success, with one of the sculptures — Michael Gerald Helbing’s Beautiful Storm (shown right) — receiving sponsorship shortly after it was shown.

“We made two calls to artists,” said David Wilcoxen, President of the Public Art League. “The first one was a general call and the second was a themed-based call.”

Fifty-nine pieces were submitted in the first call alone. Two submissions came from outside of the United States — one from Canada and the other from Japan. A jury panel composed of six members from the Public Art League had the responsibility of narrowing down the field after the second call.

“It’s interesting because there will be some pieces that naturally rise to the top, that every panel member is attracted to,” Wilcoxen said. “Then there are some where the panel will have to deliberate a little bit.”

Factors such as a sculpture’s durability helped to weed out delicate pieces. The outdoor conditions in Champaign-Urbana can prove to be too harsh for certain sculptures.

“Some [sculptures] are selected for interior spaces too,” Wilcoxen said. “There will be one going inside the Jos. Kuhn & Co.’s store window.”

Craig Rost, Champaign’s Deputy City Manager for Economic Development, was in attendance at the unveiling in June. City officials like Rost have been collaborating with the Public Art League since its creation in May 2010. “We had to struggle at first to get public art off the ground,” Rost said. “David did most of the leg work on the structure of the agreement [with the city]. All we’ve had to do is be supportive.”

Rost views the Public Art League as a perfect example of what can happen at times if local government decides to “get out of the way and let people do the things they do well and get it done.” The Deputy City Manager went on to describe the partnership as “great.”

Wilcoxen added, “It takes several of us working together collectively to make this work. If the city wasn’t open to what we want to do and what we want to sponsor, things would be much harder.”

Thanks to the collaboration, the Public Art League is not limited to private planning and is free to target public spaces for the sculptures they bring in. Since 2010, the Public Art League has installed 19 sculptures in the area. Two-year lease agreements are signed with the artists, and pieces are returned afterwards unless purchased by a sponsor or the lease is renewed.

One sculpture that will be installed within the coming months, Beth Nybeck’s Stride, will be placed in front of the Orpheum’s Children’s Science Museum in Champaign. It has already caught the president’s eye as something that should be permanent.


“We think it’s just going to be the perfect spot,” Wilcoxen said. “I’m pretty excited to see [Stride] come here. It’s rather large, and I hope we can find a way to keep it here in front of the museum.”

Wilcoxen would like to keep all of the sculptures that are chosen for the public’s viewing. It’s just not always easy to find a sponsor willing to spend $40,000, the amount the more expensive pieces yield. Aside from finding sponsors, just leasing one of these works of art can prove to be difficult.

“It’s a very competitive process,” Wilcoxen said in regards to securing the pieces that make the jury panel’s final cut. “The artist will enter their piece in multiple shows. If you select their sculpture, you really have to hustle to get it sponsored or else it’s going to be taken by someone else.”

Organization among the Public Art League’s board of directors is crucial in this sense. “We have a very dynamic board,” Wilcoxen went on. “We have a separate sponsorship committee, constant communication between board members, artists, and the city. We are working with private individuals who want the sculptures installed on their property.”

Since taking over as president in January 2011, Wilcoxen believes that the entire board is “getting better at the mechanics of the process.” The experience gained has helped to make some of the Public Art League’s lease and sales contracts uniform.

“Teasing out those details takes a bit of time,” Wilcoxen explained. “We’re pretty much streamlining our process. The next phase is coordinating installation.”
Splintering Continuity, Beth Nybeck

A tentative date at the end of September has been set for final installation. “Last year, our final sculpture was installed on December 23,” Wilcoxen said. “We don’t want that to happen again, but there is no way of knowing.”

Timely installation aside, the Public Art League’s president believes that the organization is “experiencing an increase in our momentum, exposure, and the desire for it.”

Spending the majority of his time in downtown Champaign, Rost witnesses the interaction between the public and the sculptures firsthand.

“People stop by and look at the pieces,” Rost said. “They’ll read the plaques. It’s really neat to see. The art adds to the quality of life in downtown, and there is an appreciation for it.”

Since Champaign-Urbana area is full of art enthusiasts, a major university, and a now established Public Art League, the fact that Wilcoxen and the board of directors have plans in motion for the future comes as no surprise.

“We have a virtual tour in development,” Wilcoxen said. “People will eventually be able to go to the website and download a PDF that has the tour. It’ll be a map showing and identifying all of the sculptures. People will be able access additional information about an artist or a particular piece.”

The Public Art League is looking to publish the map on October 1, after the installation of this year’s sculptures. “That way we’ll have the most up-to-date map,” Wilcoxen said. “We’re also working on how to create an endowment so we can have some outside money coming into the organization. We’re developing our grant writing capacity as well.”

Currently, the Public Art League is waiting to hear back from three separate grant applications.

Other changes may involve placing the submissions of future competitions in one particular part of Champaign or Urbana.

“We may have a competition that will focus on putting the art within the Boneyard Creek Detention Project,” Rost said. “That’s one goal we’ve had.”

Rost and members of the Public Art League have also noted the success some communities have enjoyed by introducing mural art.

“We want to branch this thing out a bit,” Rost said. “A lot of communities have used the unused sides of buildings for their murals. There are no set plans for moving forward with that, but it’s something we’ve talked about.”

            Oak Leaf, Jim Gallucci

“I think a community that has as much art and science and things going on as ours really needs to have this,” Rost said. “The sculptures give this sort of vibe. It’s important for our community to see something is going on here, and the guys at the Public Art League are very motivated.”

When asked why he has a passion to bring art to the public, Wilcoxen replied, “I love public art mostly because of the affect it has on the urban environment. It transforms your experience. It’s like walking into an empty room in a house versus walking into a room that’s furnished. The art gives that intangible value or element of ‘coolness’ that makes a place more beautiful.”

Make sure to visit the Public Art League’s website and to look for the installation of the new sculptures in the coming months.

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