“It’s a sleepy little town on a river bend,” Dimondale native Camron Gnass said of his lifelong home. “It’s more of a bedroom community than it is anything with real commerce. There’s just kind of one main blinker-light there, and other than that it’s a kind of off-the-beaten-path.”
Now though, this village of roughly 1,200 residents about 10 miles southwest of Lansing has more public art than traffic lights.
Dimondale entered the art scene with the establishment of the Dimondale Arts Commission in 2020 and installation of a pair of publicly funded sculptures in 2022.
It was a watershed moment. For starters, public art hadn’t even been on the table, legislatively speaking, in Dimondale until at least 2015.
That’s when, Gnass, 47, who owns a graphic design firm in Lansing, found himself reflecting on several public art pieces he’d seen erected across Greater Lansing, made possible primarily through a series of regional and statewide grants.
“I asked our village manager and Council at the time if they had ever applied for any of these grants, and what I learned was that they didn’t, because they couldn’t. There was no ordinance that allowed the installation of public art,” Gnass said.
From there, he said, “I contacted a bunch of small communities that I could find around the state, and then I got with the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and asked for their guidance.” The arts council has been locking down funding for and encouraging public art for nearly 55 years. This year, it administered the City of Lansing’s Arts Projects Grants program, selecting nine local arts and cultural organizations, which received a total of $83,750. Next month, the arts council will host the 9th Annual Creative Placemaking Summit, Oct. 5 to 7.
“In the past decade or so, especially, we’ve really focused on the economic impact of the arts and how that livability of having art in your community really makes a difference between deciding to relocate into the City of Lansing or the surrounding areas,” Meghan Martin, the council’s executive director, said.
It’s an attitude that, at last, seems to have made its way into Dimondale. In cities like Lansing and East Lansing, however, this placemaking movement operates on a far grander scale.
In the 2023 fiscal year, for example, the Michigan Arts and Culture Council awarded Ingham County applicants $916,268 out of the requested total of $1,162,013, more than was received by all but four other counties statewide (Wayne, home to Detroit, $2,259,569; Kent, home to Grand Rapids, $1,220,032; Washtenaw, home to Ann Arbor, $959,418; and Oakland, $934,687). The arts council pulled in $95,000 from that pool, while the East Lansing Arts Commission collected $54,440.
The latter commission has perhaps been at the forefront of the local public arts movement since it was established in 1985. In 2014, the City of East Lansing developed a notable “Percent for Art Ordinance,” which requires 1% of the cost of private construction projects and another 1% of East Lansing’s general fund capital spending to be dedicated to erecting and maintaining public art. Thanks to this legislation, an additional $25,000 will be distributed toward public art in the city in 2023.
Another influential fund is the Lansing Economic Area Partnership's Public Art for Communities grant, an 11-year program that has invested just under $300,000 in public art grants through a partnership with the PNC Foundation. This particular collaboration is approaching a total of 50 individual pieces established throughout the area.
“It’s not as traditional for economic development agencies to always work in the placemaking space, but for us, we saw it as a value to create a space where people want to be — where businesses can be both successful and help promote a greater sense of community,” Emma Bostwick, LEAP’s director of business ecosystem development, said.
“It’s a way to create that longevity of art, but also a dedicated, purposeful space, because we recognize that that’s really true to creating a sense of community,” Bostwick said.
Dimondale’s Gnass learned all he could from these sources seven years ago in his effort to bring the movement to his village. As the process played out, he found a key ally in Denise Parisian, the longtime Dimondale city manager who retired in 2018, whom Gnass described as “instrumental in working with me to make it happen.”
In late 2015, with Parisian’s guidance, “I effectively developed a draft of a public arts ordinance and presented it to the village Council, and they adopted it,” Gnass explained. Despite these efforts, public art in Dimondale was, at this point, still a ways away from becoming a reality.
“It sat there for five years, and they never did anything with it,” Gnass said. “Basically, it was declared as part of the ordinance that there needs to be a commission to do it. I created a steering committee, and we had a great group of volunteers step up.”
The next step was to keep the foot on the gas. Gnass was voted in as president and Dimondale’s Arts Commission was granted an inaugural budget of $10,000 for its first project.
“We developed an equitable public art request for qualification. We effectively used the model from the city of East Lansing, where we opened it up basically statewide to artists,” Gnass said.
The goal was to allow for as much artistic autonomy as possible.
“We knew we wanted an installation of some kind, but we did not declare exactly what it needed to be. The idea was, this isn’t about the kind of artwork that we’d like or dislike — this is about allowing artists to express themselves to the community,” Gnass said.
The entries were narrowed down to three finalists, to which the village had agreed to pay $500 apiece to present final designs. The commission ultimately chose metalworker Ivan Iler’s “Bridge Between Banks” as the winning proposal. Iler is the same artist who created “Portrait of a Dreamer” — dubbed Gearhead — that looms over a downtown stretch of Michigan Avenue and the “Mother Tree” sculpture that was erected last month in Hunter Park on Kalamazoo Street in Lansing.
Dimondale’s unveiling ceremony for “Bridge Between Banks” took place in September 2022 at the project site off the corner of Bridge Street and Jefferson Avenue. Its other publicly funded sculpture, “The River (Runs Through it)”, by Richard Tanner, was installed in July last year.
The Dimondale Arts Commission Commission is preparing to commission its third major work, a mural. The six-member board is also developing a handful of smaller projects, including an “Art Exchange Box,” in which residents will be welcome to share art supplies in a similar vein to your standard neighborhood library.
As the years pass and public art becomes more and more visible in Dimondale, Gnass expects to see the village’s sense of culture flourish.
“There’s a reason that the larger institutions call these things ‘sense of place branches,’” Gnass said. “It anchors people to their communities, it elicits thought and creates points of pride.”
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