FAIRBANKS — Many downtown commercial buildings enjoy low space heating costs because they are hooked up to a steam and hot water system piped beneath downtown’s streets. These pipes run through a utilidor that also houses infrastructure for other utilities and communications companies. The utilidor needs air exchange, and it is the 23 “snorkels” scattered throughout downtown that provide air intake and exhaust. Because the vent pipes are beige and nondescript — and because they don’t have to be — they are the canvass for the “Art in the Heart: Paint the Pipes” project.
There are many ways to revitalize downtown, though there is no silver bullet. Private and public investment, planning, events and promotions, and public art combine to generate interest in downtown, visitation and use of downtown, an inflow of tenants, and more investment. Public art is the most commonly suggested way to revitalize downtown by downtown businesses and the public at large. In response, the Downtown Association will lead one public art project downtown each year. For the inaugural effort, the Downtown Association teamed with Project Fairbanks.
The “Art in the Heart: Paint the Pipes” project will pay local artists $300 each to create art on a vent pipe in the design and colors of their choosing to add vitality to the streetscape. The project was announced in late July and as of the close of deadline for submissions on Aug. 21, 35 artists had submitted more than 60 designs. There are some noteworthy features about this project.
First, sponsorship opportunities went first to downtowners who have a pipe in their front yard, as it were. At this time, full- and half-pipe sponsors are mainly from within downtown: 2 Street Gallery, Aurora Energy, Big Ray’s, Downtown Rotary, FairbanksAlaska.com, Gallery 49, Golden Heart Utilities, Fairbanks Ice Museum, Mt. McKinley Bank, Santa’s Vagabond Travel, S Salon, Tanana Valley State Fair, the UAF Community and Technical College, and Wes Madden Realty. A growing list of small businesses and individuals rounds-out the project’s sponsors.
Second, to resolve the tension between sponsors wanting to know that the artwork will reflect their interests and a preference by “everyone else” that the painted pipes not be an elaborate billboard for the sponsors, we commissioned an art selection committee. Members Scott Allison, Bill Brophy, Amber Courtney, Margaret Donat, Trevor Eller, Sheri Olesen, and Sarah States chose the winning artists’ submissions on Aug. 22 on the basis of high quality submissions by proven artists who could demonstrate past success and original concepts that will foster community pride and contribute to a sense of identity for citizens.
We believe that choosing the art on its merits maintains the integrity of art and provides a higher-quality exhibit. Next, sponsors will rank their favorite designs in an attempt to match sponsors to art of their liking. In this way, the sponsor and artwork elements of this project are separate and artists will be completing their own designs.
Third, this is the people’s project. Residents committed to public art can collectively fund the painting of one pipe through donations on kickstarter.com (search for “Art in the Heart: Paint the Pipes”). If the $1,500 fundraising goal is reached, the Downtown Association will hire an artist to paint a specific pipe funded entirely through individual donations. This fundraising model is a perfect fit for Paint the Pipes because it allows those who call for more public art in downtown Fairbanks to take action by directly funding this project. If you like what’s being done downtown, you can also show your support by volunteering for this project.
Congratulations to Karen Austen, Sarah DeGennaro, Lucas Elliott, Nikke Kinne, Mica Fairchild, David Hayden, Mica Hendricks , Dan Kennedy, Nikki Kinne, the Midnight Sun Junior Roller Girlz, Laura Nutter, Gail Priday, Iris Sutton, and Kate Wood for their winning submissions. The artists have begun painting downtown’s vent pipes. Some are completed. A public unveiling of the completed project is scheduled for the final Downtown Market on Monday, Sept. 24 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Golden Heart Plaza. And if you miss that, come down for First Friday, Oct. 5.
David van den Berg is the executive director of the Downtown Association of Fairbanks, an association of downtown professionals, restaurateurs and retailers.