Saturday, July 24, 2004

Hamilton carves arts niche

Display aims to help revive downtown

By Jackie Demaline
Enquirer staff writer

Hamilton's High Street looks like a lot of other main streets in small American cities ravaged by the loss of manufacturing and retail during the 1990s.

There's a stately courthouse with a sprawling lawn, banks, offices and a modern Government Services Center, but there's something shopworn about it all.

The city shows the effects of a population that's trickling away, from just over 63,000 in 1980 to just over 60,000 in 2000.

On a sunny summer weekday morning, there aren't many people on the sidewalks. And the few who are hanging around are frozen in time. Literally.

Hamilton carves arts niche
City of sculpture
Artist in residence: Dennis C. Baker
By the numbers
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park
Map of sculptures

What sets Hamilton's High Street apart from any other Main Street U.S.A. is that if you're strolling it, you'll see sculpture, lots of it. Most are friendly, life-sized figures, including 20 recently installed lifelike pieces from realist J. Seward Johnson Jr.

After a limp attempt at reviving its fortunes several years ago by adding an exclamation point to the end of Hamilton!, some citizens have focused their sights on transforming the down-on-its-luck city into Ohio's "City of Sculpture."

The city hasn't officially adopted the slogan yet, but this small band of volunteers hopes that, too, will change, along with some commonly held notions about uses of public art. "The average person is not going to be able to avoid sculpture," board member and architect Michael Dingeldein says with satisfaction.

In August, the City of Sculpture will mark its fourth anniversary and things are moving so fast, "it's hard to keep the Web site up to date," says Dingeldein.

Next month's installation of a 13-foot bronze statue of city namesake Alexander Hamilton by Kristen Visbal will bring the number of works on permanent display to 19 in about a three-square-block section of downtown. Now through September, that number is more than doubled with a temporary exhibit of 20 life-size "everyday people" sculptures by Johnson.

"Our phone lines are hot," says Gerry Hammond, City of Sculpture's founding board president.

Individuals and institutions are stepping forward with grants and donations, ready to add more works to the landscape in the hopes of forging a new artistic industry. To date, the City of Sculpture organization, private funders and such unlikely arts patrons as the local fire and police departments have raised more than $1.5 million to buy the 19 sculptures adorning the streets.

'Safe Capital' gets face-lift

At the turn of the century, Hamilton was a manufacturing stronghold, known as "The Safe Capital of the World."

Mosler Safe Co. built the vault for Fort Knox and safes that held the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One of its safes withstood the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, but Mosler and several other safe companies couldn't withstand the changing U.S. economy.

By the end of the '90s, Champion and several other paper companies were casualties, either downsized or shuttered, and Hamilton had lost its manufacturing muscle.

Downtown was nearly deserted.

The idea of sculpture caught on, says Hammond, "because it was something positive."

It was Harry Wilks, businessman and mastermind of Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park (the 265-acre park adjacent to Hamilton) who invited city officials to lunch in 1999 and pitched the idea of using the City of Sculpture tag to brand Hamilton as a destination, "before somebody else grabs the idea," he says.

And it's Wilks' Pyramid Hill that gives the idea of "Sculpturetown" legitimacy, with more than 50 contemporary monumental works by well-known and midcareer artists set in rolling parkland.

With a promise of no cost, the city officials bought in, and Wilks - busy running Pyramid Hill - tapped locals to staff the organization and talked retired schoolteacher Hammond into taking a leadership role.

Hammond didn't start out an arts advocate, but thought "it was a great idea. I was born and raised in Hamilton and watched it change from a community everybody admired to one that might be dying. My father was a director of health and of recreation for the City of Hamilton and he taught us that we are supposed to give back to the community we live in," Hammond adds. "I want to have an impact and Hamilton is small enough that I can."

Among their first acts, Hammond says with a laugh, was convincing the county commission to buy the first sculpture, placed in front of the County Administration Building. The funds were provided by the State of Ohio's Percent for Art program, which funnels a percentage of construction costs to public art, one of the many creative sources Hammond and company have found to fund their endeavor.

The commissioners wanted something non-controversial, and the choice was "Snapshot," a life-size bronze by Jane DeDecker which depicts a group of seven kids having their picture taken.

When the state of Ohio officially recognized the City of Sculpture, the occasion was marked by the unveiling of the still-controversial, 66-foot "Hamilton Gateway." The City of Sculpture office opened a few weeks later.

The abstract portal references significant aspects of the community's life, including the Great Flood of 1913. Part of its main tower is made of weathered steel and many city residents are incensed because it appears to be rusting.

People have been known to say, current board president Trudy Marcum winces, that the money to pay for it would have been put to better use filling potholes. Resident Laila Masannat went a step further when asked if the sculptures might help make a difference downtown. "To be honest," she says, "I don't think so."

'How cool is that?'

Pamela Payne, who owns the Cozy Cafe on High Street, is ecstatic about the City of Sculpture idea. She has local artists' work on display on the cafe walls, encourages youngsters to be creative with art and poetry and has music on weekends .

She's thrilled that a Seward sculpture of a street musician is installed in front of the Cozy Cafe. "How cool is that?"

Sculpture, she's convinced, is good for downtown. "People are very budget conscious," Payne observes. They can come to Hamilton, "look at art, walk around town, have lunch without spending a lot of money."

Hamilton resident Anna Franklin is less optimistic. The statuary "looks good," she acknowledges, but "what we need are stores."

Doug Ewald is proprietor of the Don-a-Lee Hallmark Shop and owns the building that houses it. Like Payne, he's hoping for the best. "It's new, it's different, let's go for it."

There are bus tours scheduled and "even if somebody only buys a poster, it's good for downtown."

The Seward exhibition has been on view less than a month, too early to know if they are the first step to Hamilton as arts destination, which is the long-term outcome for which the volunteers are hoping.

The city is still strapped for cash and cooperates with the City of Sculpture committee's efforts by offering security for its annual fund-raising IceFest event and making space on sidewalks for sculptures. But other than a $10,000 contribution for the Hamilton namesake statue, the city has not given financial support.

The City of Sculpture committee doesn't have much in the way of a bank account, either. Rent on the small High Street office is free and staffing is volunteer.

Although the committee serves as "facilitators, not funders," according to Marcum, when citizens step forward with a check, the staff help turn it into another piece of sculpture for Hamilton.

In the case of the new Alexander Hamilton bronze, it was primarily contributions - from 496 people, seven area schools and 18 civic organizations - that added up to $200,000 to make "American Cape" a reality.

Once utilities and office supplies are paid for, "when we've accumulated enough" money through grants, fund-raisers and contributions, "we find a piece and try to buy it," says Hammond.

The latest acquisition was "Helios Guardians" from the Cincinnati Zoo.

IceFest draws thousands

The City of Sculpture's big annual fund-raiser is IceFest, which, in three years, has grown to a two-day celebration built around more than 100 ice sculptures. Last year it drew more than 20,000 people and was judged a rousing success.

The theme for 2005 will be "Circus in Ice." More than 100 ice sculptures are planned, illuminated at night for a "Technicolor Ice Walk." There will be a sled race, a soap-sculpture competition and an amateur photo contest.

Mayor Don Ryan, who was a member of City Council in 2000, sees City of Sculpture as "only one of many positives" that Hamilton activists are engaging in to bring back their city.

"It's definitely better than the exclamation point," Ryan says.

In the late '80s, Hamilton officially added an exclamation point to its name in an attempt to wake things up.

That fizzled. Ryan believes making use of art will be more productive. "We were a manufacturing and mill town," he says. "We're not going to be that anymore. I think art will play a major role."

A recently completed city planning study includes a dedicated arts corridor, which is a huge deal, says Dingeldein. The inclusion of an arts corridor in the plan took everyone by surprise. While City of Sculpture wasn't invited to participate in the early stages, suddenly the committee was getting phone calls about placement of water and sewer lines in regard to potential future sites for sculpture.

Long-range plans

City of Sculpture is thinking long-term, says Marcum, a retired pediatric nurse and mother of four. Though it typically takes a decade or more to see quantifiable results from this kind of wholesale change, according to Steven Wolff of AMS Planning & Research, the city is headed in the right direction.

Even without a full municipal buy-in, Marcum thinks a lot can be done with a little, pointing to the artist-in-residency as an example.

Dennis Baker, a Montgomery resident, is City of Sculpture's Hamilton's artist in residence. He got the gig after submitting photos of his work to Wilks, hoping the Pyramid Hill founder would consider it for his park. Instead, Wilks pointed him toward the City of Sculpture committee, which had "artist-in-residence" on its to-do list.

Considering that the chair of the residency committee was Neil Cohen, owner of Hamilton Scrap Processorsand Baker specializes in sculptures made from metal found objects, the fit was like Cinderella and the glass slipper.

Baker, whose residency is unpaid, is a true believer and is comfortable saying that there will be "multiple artists living here" within the next few years.

There is even more work ahead, City of Sculpture board members agree, and that includes addressing what it means to be a City of Sculpture.

"Because we're just starting out, they were all bronze figures at first," says Hammond. And though the Johnson pieces are all bronze, Hammond says, the group is trying to add more variety.

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Hamilton carves arts niche
City of sculpture
Artist in residence: Dennis C. Baker
By the numbers
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park
Map of sculptures

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