Public art initiative continues cultural legacy for University of Utah, state

Story and photos by CHRIS SAMUELS

When University of Utah students walk down the main stairs of the Marriott Library, they may not notice a 50-foot-tall mosaic of a stack of books.

Students walk by a public art piece in the Marriott Library.

Students walk by a mosaic created by Paul Housberg in the Marriott Library.

Or, while they’re studying on the third floor common area, they may not see a giant arch with Arabic and mathematical equations that wraps around the center of the open space.

Even in less noticeable areas, sculptures of books rest on bannisters and landings as students pass them by.

After they leave the library, many may be looking at their phones rather than observing sculptures at each of the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX stations on campus.

Hidden in plain sight, public art can be noticed anywhere on campus.

Art instillations in spaces like the library and other buildings are actually a fixture of the university.

Luise Poulton, rare books manager at the Marriott Library, said three public art pieces were commissioned when the library was renovated in 2009. The works include a 50-foot glass mosaic that scales all floors of the grand staircase titled, “Another Beautiful Day Has Dawned Upon Us,” by Paul Housberg, and a collection of sculptures of books by Suikang Zhao.

But art in public spaces is not just an initiative of the University of Utah.

The state unveiled the Percent-for-Art Act in 1985 in an effort to introduce more art in public spaces and reach more audiences. According to the bill, the measure designates 1 percent of the cost of the building be spent on furnishing the space with permanent public art pieces. The intention of the act is to enhance “the quality of life in the state by placing art of the highest quality in public spaces where it is seen by the general public.” The act also “promotes and preserves appreciation for and exposure to the arts; and foster[s] cultural development in the state and encourage[s] the creativity and talents of its artists and craftspeople.”

A public art piece inside the Spencer Fox Eccles Building.

A public art piece inside the Spencer Fox Eccles Building.

Gay Cookson is director of the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, the state department that has authority over the bill. Cookson said public art enhances many of the newly created public spaces around the state, as well as the frequent construction projects that are going on around the U.

“I love that the statute is at 1 percent, and that public buildings have to be invested into arts,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to set aside a budget for arts, but with the statute, it’s really the one time when a building is being built that they recognize they need to do a significant investment in art. Even though it’s forced by statute, they were excited to be engaged in the work.”

Obtaining the art, Cookson said, is a process of application and determining what fits best with each publicly funded building. When it is nearing completion, a committee comprised of planners, building managers and those who will be using the space will review proposals for art pieces. At least one art expert is always included in the group.

Cookson said when a new project is considered, the Division of Arts and Museums can receive up to 40 different proposals by artists from Utah or across the country. The committee’s responsibility is to narrow the list down to three finalists. Those finalists are given $1,000 to construct a model to present to the committee. Then, a winner is selected and is given the funding to proceed with the art piece.

Cookson emphasized that the entire committee is not reliant on art expertise. She wants those who will view the instillations much more frequently than experts to make the decisions.

A sculpture of a book is displayed outside the Marriott Library

A sculpture of a book by artist Suikang Zhao is displayed outside the Marriott Library.

“We want the final say to be on who will be living in that space,” she said. “Which is kind of cool because you’re empowering people who really have no artistic experience to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on art.”

Since the act’s inception in 1985, every new publicly funded building that is constructed must have 1 percent of the total cost of the building be dedicated to art, according to the bill. Buildings that were already completed by the time the bill was introduced are grandfathered in, and do not need to retroactively install pieces.

Administrators of public buildings can opt out of the art requirement if a certain percentage of the costs of building the structures are not met by public funds, according to the language of the bill. This was the case for the newly-completed S. J. Quinney Law School, which had enough private donor money in place to exempt it from the Percent-for-Art Act. However, Cookson said law school leaders wanted to honor the importance of art in public spaces, and complied with the mandate.

After a work is completed, the Division of Arts and Museums is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the pieces, according to the bill.

On the Utah public art website, finalists and commissioned artists of each project are publicly listed, with their website or portfolio attached.

A public art piece outside the Sorensen Arts and Education Complex.

A public art piece outside the Sorensen Arts and Education Complex.