Public Arts: The Albuquerque Public Art Program Marks 40 Years

The Albuquerque Public Art Program Marks 40 Years

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Southwest Pieta
“Southwest Pieta,” by Luis Jimenez was the first piece commissioned by the Public Art Program; the piece provoked discourse on identity and heritage in ABQ (Eric Williams Photography)
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On Albuquerque’s West Mesa, surfacing through the chalky black patina of the volcanic rock there, images appear from the paler stone beneath. A macaw peers out of the basalt at Boca Negra Canyon, handprints are marked upon the escarpment—these are a few of the 20,000 petroglyphs that evidence Native Americans and Spanish colonists injecting creative meaning into their environment hundreds to thousands of years ago.

As these petroglyphs quietly endure under the early summer sun some eight miles away, deep inside the Albuquerque Convention Center renowned fresco artist Frederico Vigil continued work in this vein of materializing the imagination of a place and its people. There, in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, he is laboring over the detailed process of creating a fresco in a massive rounded stairwell of the building—a process that will take four years in total. Vigil is one of many creatives working in a host of different mediums to invigorate the city and visualize its past, present and future.

“We were all given this amazing gift from the Ancestral Puebloans who made all those petroglyphs in the rocks,” Sherri Brueggemann, the city’s Public Art Program Urban Enchancement Division Manager, said. The petroglyphs “are worked into little nooks and corners and every place you go along the escarpment. It’s well documented that some are comedic, some are very spiritual, some are informative and directional—yet all of it is done from this creative place. That is something Albuquerque has inherited from those Indigenous cultures, this way of marking our space with message and meaning with the human hand. That’s what we continue to do.”

The public art of Albuquerque is similarly tucked onto walls and crosswalks and billboards on so many city blocks, or soaring skyward on Downtown buildings, but all in all it has become part of the bedrock of the city in ways both small and grand. It’s hard to take a walk in this town without encountering something that effectively works as public art. Stepping outside of the Convention Center onto Third Street and crossing Civic Plaza, I bumped into the jovial figure of Senator Dennis Chavez translated into a sculptural piece completed by Cynthia Rowland in 1999. In eyeshot was Jake Lovato’s Holocaust Memorial. Heading west down Central I passed the colorful “Yei Be Chei Central” near Fifth Street. And the art isn’t just concentrated Downtown, but instead is painted into landscapes the city over—from the Northeast Heights to the far Westside.

“Public art is really part of Albuquerque’s identity,” Brueggemann continued, “We might not have a big, iconic piece like ‘The Bean’ in Chicago, but what we have is public art everywhere you turn around. It might be on a pedestrian scale—on benches or banners, but it’s everywhere. It shows that we are a city that values art in our built environment.”

Our city’s Public Art Program is marking its 40th anniversary this year—that makes us the 15th oldest of our kind in the country. Over the course of those 40 years, somewhere upwards of 18 million dollars have been channeled into bringing art into the public sphere through the 1 percent program—which sets aside 1 percent of funds from general obligation bonds for city construction to purchase and commission art. “We are absolutely sure,” Brueggemann said, “we don’t know which day it will happen or exactly which project it is going to be—but we will acquire our 1,000th piece of art during our 40th anniversary year.”

That milestone could be realized in any of the many, many projects that the Public Art Program currently has underway; the list of current projects and their specs that Brueggemann slid across the table to me totaled eight pages. The list included a large-scale work of art that utilizes reclaimed water in the Sawmill district, Vigil’s fresco in the Convention Center, a mural currently underway in Los Tomases Park, a piece of video art for the JumboTron in Civic Plaza and a temporary art installation at Tingley Beach by artist Daniel Richmond, to name just a few.

Beyond supporting the commission and creation of artworks such as these, the Public Art Program is helping to set standards for creative work in our community. Not only do they pay artists invited to submit designs for their time even if their proposal is not selected, but they are helping to develop the bylines of best practice when it comes to mural work, for example. Effectively, the program is “an open door,” as Brueggemann put it, a resource for creatives working in the public sphere. They help advise artists on their rights, like understanding their intellectual property rights under copyright laws and the Visual Artists Rights Act. The small staff is always up for “having those conversations in a fluid way throughout our community to help everybody feel good about murals in Albuquerque—because they’re exploding,” she said.

All of these efforts vivify and give texture to life in Albuquerque. They add value that transcends the purely economic. These works of art help us to, like Brueggemann described, see the human hands at work in our built environment, lending potent human symbols to otherwise blank brick and concrete. There’s no bar for entry, either—the art exists for everyone. It is threaded into daily lives played out against the backdrop of the city just as profoundly as it shapes the experiences of visitors stepping out of the Sunport or exiting I-40. Whether we live here or are just passing through, it encourages us to look more closely at—and sometimes question—the spaces we exist in, and how values, culture and identity are made manifest.

Looking to the future, Brueggemann said, “I want public art to be loved and embraced. I want there to continue to be more demand than resources, I don’t want that to ever stop. I would like us to have as much diversity as we can in terms of location, scale, medium. … [and] I want people to feel like we are a go-to organization that can help them realize what they want to see in the city.”

Here’s to another 40 years of the Public Art Program, and their unique ability to facilitate the expression of more than just beauty, but meaning and engagement, in the environment we all share.
Quantum Bridge

The Quantum Bridge mural by Aaron Noble and 10 student apprentices is one example of eye-catching work support by the Public Art Program

Eric Williams Photography

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