Casper, WY: Confluence of Time and Space
How can public art be integrated into the development of affordable housing as part of a comprehensive vision for a revitalized, sustainable downtown?
When an apartment complex in downtown Casper, Wyoming, was being transformed as a sustainable community, the project developer and one of its neighbors, the Nicolaysen Art Museum, saw the opportunity to address some longstanding neighborhood problems−including high crime and a weak economy−through the arts. While the development of the apartments would help to provide affordable housing, access to transportation, and increased walkability to the area, the Our Town project created a multi-generational gathering space in front of the building and helped the Museum to infuse art and arts education into the larger development process.
With a population of 580,000, Wyoming is a large state with a small population. There are two major towns: Cheyenne and Casper, each with about 60,000 people. Casper is proud to be a “cowboy town” and self- identifies as a locus of outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing. Traditional industries include oil, gas, and ranching. Many of Casper’s museums and cultural organizations are located in the downtown district. These include the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (a facility dedicated to commemorate the pioneers who traveled through the area), Salt Creek Oil Field Museum, the Nicolaysen Art Museum (contemporary art), the Ft. Caspar Museum, and the Tate Geological Museum. An apartment complex near the museums was in the midst of renovations but it had been neglected so badly that it became a public health hazard; the City of Casper had to condemn the buildings in 2009. Close to Casper’s public transportation hub and adjacent to the “Rails to Trails” public hiking/biking path that stretches from one end of town to the other, the affordable housing complex also occupied a prominent site within the downtown area.
Casper, like much of Wyoming, tends to run in an economic cycle dependent on the oil, coal, and natural gas industries. Predicting long-term job and population growth can be difficult since the economy in the state does not always follow national economic trends. Further complicating economic planning, Casper’s population can be migratory, with workers coming in and out to serve the energy industries. However, during the Great Recession, Wyoming had one of the lower unemployment rates in the country.
The condemned apartments near the museums had living conditions that were consistently unsafe, including a scourge of drug dealing, which contributed to a lower quality of life for residents in the area. Although few people live in downtown Casper, the housing market has been tight and the area was in need of housing choices for all income levels. The partners saw the potential to address the shortage in housing in the area with rental units for all income levels, including affordable housing for lower-income residents, and to incorporate the arts into the process.
Neighborhood stakeholders—led by the Wyoming Community Development Authority (WCDA) and the Nicolaysen Art Museum—established a primary goal to create a sustainable public art project that would enhance the landscape and character of the apartment complex, while simultaneously drawing inspiration from the history of the community, geography, and climate. The 30 square-foot area in front of the complex was designed to be a gathering place for the community and a source of community pride, education, and inspiration. Project managers wanted to engage neighborhood residents to give them ownership over the planning process and to integrate educational arts- based programs for residents of all ages. The planning process itself would become a hands-on creative activity for the community. “With the location of the museum across the street from the site, there is an even greater opportunity to create art and educational activities for the community,” says Lisa Hatchadoorian, former curator of the Nicolaysen Art Museum and project manager of the public art component of the project. With 23 years in their current location, the museum had a vested interest in developing partnerships with the community to ensure the viability and livability of the neighborhood.
WCDA and the Nicolaysen Art Museum partnered with Grimshaw Investments, a private developer, to spearhead the project. WCDA recognized the opportunity to develop the central open space with public art as a component of the housing project and first approached the Nicolaysen Art Museum to help realize that vision. Each partner took on key roles. The WCDA was the financier for the housing project. The museum, the only contemporary art museum in the state of Wyoming, managed the public art project, selecting the artist and helping to raise additional funds for its completion. Grimshaw served as the developer for the housing project and developed the landscaping for the site. In the future, Grimshaw will lease the site to the City of Casper for $1 per year for 99 years. When they take possession of the property, the City of Casper will provide annual maintenance and care for the site.
The team had to identify an artist to create a public installation that could be incorporated into existing open green space and could serve as a gathering place for the residents of the housing complex and members of the surrounding community and businesses. The museum held an international search, which yielded 86 applications. The team eventually narrowed the selection to three finalists, chosen for their strong community-based work. The partners brought each finalist to Casper, where they had the chance to present their work and an initial idea for the project. Incorporating input from the community, each artist then submitted a revised idea to the selection panel comprised of representatives from the museum, developers, the city manager of Casper, and community members. Kansas City, KS-based artist Matthew Dehaemers was ultimately chosen. Dahaemers created 'Confluence of Time and Space,' an interactive sculpture that was inspired by the historical and geological periods of the region—rugged rocky terrain, bones, fossils, and the word and image carvings made by indigenous people and pioneers.
By anchoring one end of downtown with affordable, sustainable housing, green space, and public art to compliment the museum and existing community across the street, the partners of this project have invested in the future of downtown Casper to create a livable, dynamic community. This level and diversity of development has already spurred economic development in this area of downtown with the opening of new businesses. The incorporation of public art into the site unified the neighborhood, generating a better sense of place. “This project was ground breaking in that there were no public art projects that were tied directly to affordable housing projects for low-income citizens in the state of Wyoming, and we have created a public art partnership model for similar programs throughout the state that also incorporates LEED design and minimal environmental impact,” says Hatchadooian.
“We’re one of the only contemporary art venues as a state,” said Hatchadorian, “So ideas about art can be rather traditional. This project broke that mold – unexpectedly. ‘Confluence of Time and Space’ by Matthew Dehaemers was a perfect melding of a contemporary artistic mindset that responded to the culture, geology and history of a specific place in the West and in Wyoming.” Based on the success of the project the Nicolaysen Art Museum is now planning on using the public art project as a platform to develop other programs in arts education as well as civic engagement. The museum has continued in its partnership with Grimshaw, and it has coordinated workshops for artists and children in the community, each with an emphasis on place and sustainability. The outcomes of these workshops were then exhibited in the common areas of the new apartment buildings. The museum also assisted in the creation of 65 artworks by the children of Casper, recruiting artists who work in a variety of media to lead workshops about environmental sustainability in schools and community centers.
- McMurry Foundation
- WAC (Wyoming Arts Council)
- John D. Traut Charitable Lead Trust
- CY Transportation
- First Interstate Bank
- Murane & Bostwick
- Hilltop National Bank
- Bank of America Merrill Lynch
- Kaiser and Company
- Porter, Muirhead, Cornia & Howard
- Kutak Rock LLP
- Jonah Bank of Wyoming