- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

LOVELAND, Colo. - They haven’t gotten gold or silver, but they have a lot of bronze. To their own amazement, residents of this small town north of Denver seem to have found a way to make this metal precious.

The conversion works so well that it leaves this community, a former major wheat-and-railway link at the front range of the Rockies, with an estimated $10 million of extra income annually — in return for about $200,000 worth of investment.

In addition, the venture has generated more than 280 full-time jobs and is expected to bring even more in years to come.

That’s what happens, city officials say, when one throws out a welcoming mat not only to people, but also to sculptures.

They are everywhere: in parks and patios, in storefronts and office buildings, inside and outside libraries and museums, and even at the police station. In steel, wrought iron, marble, granite and alabaster, but mostly in bronze as the local arts community seems to favor its somber and ascetic glitter.

Thankfully, none resembles the gaudy, cookie-cutter donkeys and elephants familiar to some urban residents on the East Coast.

“Right now, we have about 270 of these sculptures around town both inside and outside buildings,” says Susan P. Ison, the city’s director of cultural services. “But it’s definitely just the beginning.”

The sculptures so generously scattered throughout Loveland are a byproduct of a thriving arts industry that came about through a marriage of astute public policy and bold business decisions.

It all started in the early 1970s when a struggling auto parts plant on the outskirts of the city gave a helping hand to a penniless sculptor.

The artist wanted his work to be cast in bronze, but he could not find an affordable foundry nearby.

The plan was unexpected and unusual. There were doubts that the casting skills of auto parts makers were easily transferable to fine art. But plant owner Bob Zimmerman saw an opportunity and made a strategic decision.

It marked the beginning of Art Castings of Colorado, now one of the largest and popular sculpture-making foundries of North America, which now exceeds 10 times its original size.

And it was the birth of an industry in a town whose only claim to fame up to that point was remailing Valentine’s Day greeting cards so that a stamp with the word “Loveland” would appear on the envelope.

Once the casting plant was set up and became fully operational, Mrs. Ison said, word spread quickly and sculptors from across the country started moving in to be close to it.

“We were used to have just agriculture and high-tech here,” she said. “Sculpture was a relatively new addition. But now we already have 10 major art galleries in town, up from one. That is not counting smaller individual studios.”

News about the opportunities has reached as far as the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, where the increasingly authoritarian government of President Robert Mugabe and political turmoil have destroyed the environment necessary for free artistic expression.

Zimbabwean Chapungu artists, residents said, are now a fixture on the Loveland scene.

In the mid-1980s, the city gave its fledging industry a decisive shot in the arm by creating a relatively small but stable municipally sponsored art market.

It became the first city in Colorado to pass an ordinance directing 1 percent of every public capital construction project worth more than $50,000 to be allocated for acquisition of art.

As a result, officials said, the city now can count on about $200,000 every year to purchase sculptures and other works of art to decorate its streets and plazas as well as public buildings.

In addition, it founded an annual sculpture show to give the arts community a powerful marketing tool.

The show, which debuted in August 1984, drew dozens of participants and made money from sales, fees and commissions in its first year.

“It’s a huge event now, which grows rapidly every year,” Mrs. Ison said.

But it may have fallen victim to its own success. In order to keep the event manageable and well-organized, the Loveland High Plains Arts Council, the official host of the show, capped the number of participants at 175 and introduced a rigorous selection process for applicants.

The upshot was a silent revolt in the local arts community. Those winnowed out by the jury set up a rival exhibit.

The “outcast” show debuted in 1992, also to immediate success. And so the town of 65,000 now has its own version of a culture war that generates millions of dollars in revenue not only through participation fees and art sales, but also through thousands of tourists who flock to rival events every August.

Taken together, the two events amount to the largest outdoor sculpture show and sale in North America.

Most of the money collected through the public arts tax is spent to decorate Benson Park, a 13.5-acre expanse of grass and trees that is now home to 116 sculptures. Bronze figures of Indian warriors, pioneer explorers, 19th-century farmers, and animals and birds populating the American West create a dazzling kaleidoscope of characters that give the park its unique feel.

Dale De Franco, a court reporter from St. Petersburg, Fla., who was in Colorado to visit family, said she was fascinated by the whole concept.

“I like it very much. I wish we had something like that in St. Petersburg,” she said.

It has not been without controversy, though.

In 2006, a Lutheran pastor protested the installation of a nude sculpture next to his new church. “Triangle,” by Norwegian artist Kirsten Kokkin, depicted a man and a woman holding up another woman.

Voices were raised in favor and against the work, but the city defused the controversy. “We just moved it to a different location,” Mrs. Ison said, “and all quieted down.”

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