Public Art Gets New Life in Grand Island

June 30, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Grand Island Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Johnson next to new Jun Kaneko sculture. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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It’s known mostly as a farming community, but Grand Island is hoping a new push for public art will add a metropolitan flavor to the central Nebraska city. The civic art effort is part of a plan to make it more attractive to a new generation of residents.

At Railside Plaza in downtown Grand Island, there are two ceramic sculptures that are hard to miss. One is seven feet tall and weighs almost 800 pounds. It’s bright red with polka dots. The other is more subdued and smaller, with colorful stripes. They’re the work of renowned Omaha sculptor Jun Kaneko and are the newest pieces of public art in Grand Island.

“Public art is an area in our community that has been really missing,” Grand Island Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Johnson said.

A few years ago, the city decided to do something about that. It started an effort to invest in public art projects. Last year, it dedicated a large bronze sculpture on the edge of town, a piece titled “Imagination Takes Flight”, done by local artist Matthew Placzek. The city has three other bronze pieces ready to go as well, donated bench sculptures of Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and St. Francis of Assisi.

Tammy Morris with Grow Grand Island next to new Jun Kaneko sculpture. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It says that we’re a community of pride,” Johnson said. “It says we’re a community that’s committed to the arts and that we understand and appreciate what arts and humanities brings to a community and it sets us apart from communities that don’t invest in those particular areas.”

Tammy Morris has helped lead the public art effort. She’s the co-chair of the Grow Grand Island arts and humanities committee. She visited Jun Kaneko’s studios to find pieces that fit what Grand Island was looking for in public art.

“We were able to sit down and visit with him about our space, about the goals that we wanted to accomplish with our project and then he really consulted us on what was going to be a good fit for our space and what would have the most impact for the community to enjoy,” Morris said.

The end result complements a transforming downtown area.

“We feel like the feel of this is very metropolitan,” she said. “We love the fact that the contemporary art is mixed in, but also with downtown, you have your antique stores, but you also have your nice boutiques. So we think it’s a great fit.”

Sculpture "Imagination Takes Flight" in Grand Island, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Morris hopes along with the aesthetic benefits, economic benefits come with public art as well. That means finding ways to attract younger residents to Grand Island.

“It has a small town feel, Grand Island does, but also we’re getting some urban elements that we think attract younger people to want to be here,” she said. “And really to have professionals in our community, that’s something that I think all areas of the state of Nebraska are focused on is how can we get highly qualified professionals and young people to locate here in our community?”

Dr. Steve Anderson has lived in Grand Island since 1970. He’s a dentist and has donated money for the public art projects in the city. Donors like him and corporate partners have paid for most of the city’s public art pieces so far.

“I think it improves the pride one has for their city,” Anderson said. “I think it improves the way people look at the city, like it’s not just another city, but here’s a community that is proud enough of their community that somebody is putting some major art pieces in their community.”

In Railside Plaza, Cindy Johnson can’t wait for the new Kaneko sculptures to start working their magic.

“Art is a fantastic unifier,” she said. “These pieces before us will have conversations started about them. People will either love them, not like them, be neutral about them, but there will be a conversation and that conversation is important to the growth and vitality of a community.”

Growth and vitality that she hopes will include many more pieces of public art in the future.