The Art of Eau Claire
Story & photos by Brian E. Clark
Eau Claire, a city of 75,000 at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in northwestern Wisconsin, takes its public art seriously. Very seriously.
With more than 50 sculptures – some serious, some whimsical – scattered mostly about its downtown, Eau Claire has been honored for having the second highest number of public art works in the country. More than Chicago, more than Los Angeles and even more than New York City.
But Eau Claire, ranked behind Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is gunning for the number one spot in this summer’s contest. The winner should be announced later in July.
The sculptures are just one of the reasons to visit Eau Claire, which has a rejuvenating downtown and a vibrant music and food scene. It’s also home to Justin Vernon, who founded the indie folk band Bon Iver.
Julie Pangallo, who heads Sculpture Tour Eau Claire, said the public art program was started by Sherry Mohr, who moved from Sioux Falls more than a decade ago and said “Eau Claire needs this.”
“It started with 12 pieces and grew from there,” said Pangallo, became involved four years later and is now its director. “We now have 56 installations, which is pretty remarkable for a community of our size.” (Sioux Falls has around 200,000 residents.) The new sculpture that will be added to the tour is called “Lakota Sun,” a light-brown granite piece that weighs 9,000 pounds. It is owned by Mohr, was created by artist Shawn Morin in 2014 and will be donated to the city.
Pangallo said her organization does fund-raising year round and each “pedestal” is sponsored by a business or a supporter.
“Every spring, we take most of the current sculptures down and put up new ones, so every year most of the tour is fresh,” she explained.
“Some are sold, some go back to artists who created them and some go to other cities to be displayed. But nearly all are for sale. We work with five other cities and trade artwork back and forth.”
In addition to Eau Claire and Sioux Falls, they include Mankato, Minn.; Mason City, Iowa; Castlegar, British Columbia; and Red Wing, Minn.
She said prices for the artwork ranges from $3,500 to $120,000, though most fall in the $15,000 to $30,000 range. Each year, a People’s Choice award is given after a vote by the public. The winner receives $15,000. The only caveat, Pangallo said, is that the recipient must agree to sell the sculpture for $15,000 for permanent display.
“We have one of kids playing hockey that is now in front of the Hobbs Ice Arena, a local hockey rink. Another, of a mother with young children is at Carson Park near the playground. Others remain downtown are are still part of the tour.”
Pangallo said public helped play a role in downtown Eau Claire’s revitalization.
“The two started about the same time,” she said. “Business people were buying up old buildings and rehabbing them or taking them down and putting up new ones.
“Simultaneously, we were putting sculptures on the streets to give people a reason to come downtown. It helped things turn around in the city center because 30 or 40 years ago, everything moved out to the mall.
“Now downtown has become vibrant again and is full of activities and wonderful stores and restaurants,” she said.
On one of the two visits I made to Eau Claire recently, my 20-year-old daughter and I walked around the downtown on a warm June evening. Restaurants and bars were humming, families were out getting ice cream, children were running through a squirting fountain, skateboarders were zipping over a pedestrian bridge spanning the Eau Claire River and there were signs everywhere of continuing redevelopment. I stayed in the hip Oxbow, which is owned in part by Justin Vernon; for one trip and the chic Lismore Hotel during the other.
The anchor of downtown Eau Claire is the Pablo Center at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. It was a joint project of the city, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and the business community, Pangallo said. Facilities include a 1,200-seat theatre, three rehearsal rooms, visual arts galleries, labs for sound and lighting, set and exhibit design, recording arts, multimedia production, and costume design.
“It’s remarkable how the city embraced our public arts program,” she said. “It’s really important to our tourism and economic development.
“But even more important, it’s now part of our community pride. It’s very unifying because it takes down the socio-economic barriers to viewing art.”
She said a survey done a number of years ago showed than more than 90 percent of children in Eau Claire would never visit a muse or gallery with their parents.
“Our free public sculptures may be the only exposure that many children get to art, so this is a vital part of our cultural scene. We strive hard to have a mix of media, subject matter so something for everyone.”
Pangallo said Eau Claire’s many sculptures are meant to appeal to a wide range of people.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted and studied, though it can,” she said. “It is more entertainment and we’re happy with that.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.