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The first annual Bull City Sculpture Show raises Durham's public art profile 

Sculptor Mike Roig polishes his work "Twist of Fate" before it is installed in Durham's New County Court House Plaza.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Sculptor Mike Roig polishes his work "Twist of Fate" before it is installed in Durham's New County Court House Plaza.

Hardly any visual art form is as interactive as public sculpture. Almost daily, kids clamber onto the stoic back of "Major," the life-sized bronze bull by Michael Waller and Leah Foushee Waller that stands in Durham's CCB Plaza. And Vernon Pratt's field of white granite blocks, "All the Possibilities of Stacking Up to Two3 to Sit On," has provided contemplative seating in front of the Durham Arts Council since its renovated building opened in 1988.

Now the Bull City Sculpture Show, which is currently being installed downtown and along the Foster Street corridor, aims to make Durham a legitimate public sculpture destination. It includes 12 new works by artists from all over the country, six of them from North Carolina. The pieces range from representational to abstract, and come in a wide variety of sizes and materials.

The tallest sculpture in the show is Carrboro resident Mike Roig's "Twist of Fate," a sail-like shape in stainless steel that stands 18 feet tall by the new courthouse. Asheville artist Todd Frahm's limestone pillar of octopus tentacles, "Basin and Range," crouches in a fountain on American Tobacco Campus. People strolling between restaurants near Five Points might think of Brancusi's "Endless Column" when they see East Carolina University sculpture professor Hanna Jubran's ornate aluminum column, "Balance Point Three."

To kick off the show, a Grand Opening Gala in Durham Central Park on Friday features live music emceed by Howard Burchette of WNCU's The Funk Show, food trucks and beer. There's a public bronze pouring at the Central Park foundry on Saturday morning and walking tours of the entire show throughout the afternoon.

Then, for the next six months, the sculptures simply become a part of daily life in Durham. The city will buy one "Purchase Award" winner to keep permanently, and you can vote for your favorite in a "People's Choice" online poll. The winner of that poll will stay for a full year. In this way, the show, which is planned to be annual, will slowly but surely grow Durham's collection of public sculpture.

The Bull City Sculpture Show is a production of Liberty Arts, a nonprofit arts community where many members are sculptors and metalworkers. Orphaned from the foundry near Central Park when the Liberty Warehouse roof collapsed after a thunderstorm three years ago, they found a new home at the Cordoba Center for the Arts behind Golden Belt.

An outpouring of community support during that transition buoyed the group to revisit its old dream of a city-wide sculpture show, for which the timing happened to be opportune.

In the Triangle, civic momentum has been building behind public art. In 2002, Chapel Hill implemented a "percent for art" program, which devotes one percent of the construction cost of new public buildings to artwork. Raleigh followed with similar earmarks in 2009, as did Durham three years later. The Durham Storefront Project and Windows on Chapel Hill, which pair artists with display spaces in commercial windows, have changed from interesting ideas into active programs.

Catching this municipal art tailwind, the Bull City Sculpture Show bolstered a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign with a $10,000 grant from the City of Durham's Office of Economic and Workforce Development—which includes a contribution from the Durham Cultural Advisory Board. Private businesses, individuals and the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau also lent financial and in-kind support.

Public sculpture can form an important part of a city's identity. "Cloud Gate," Anish Kapoor's giant mirrored bean in Chicago's Millennium Park, is probably one of the most photographed objects in the country. The Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty are such architectural presences that one can forget they're also public sculpture.

Although none of the works in the Bull City Sculpture Show approach this scale, the sheer density of so many sculptures in a small area represents a significant change for the landscape of Durham. "This show does exactly what public art should do," says sculptor Jackie MacLeod, president of the Liberty Arts board. "It's something you invest in and the public gets excited about and discusses."

After a national call for entries, architect Phil Freelon chose the 12 winners from around 70 submissions. The non-N.C. half came from along the entire East Coast. Floridian Ira Hill's concrete puzzle piece, "Amuk"—which the artist encourages the public to graffiti—will delight the Farmers' Market crowd. And Maine sculptor Anne Alexander's "Accretion," a smooth cedar and ceramic column, brings an organic presence to the brick and cement of American Tobacco.

Freelon, who also selected the location for each sculpture, is as excited about the coming conversations as he is about the works themselves. "Sculptural objects invite a closer engagement with the art—a 360-degree, three-dimensional experience," he says. "It's quite different from standing back and looking at a mural on the side of a building. But it's not a matter of either-or; it's a matter of different art forms complementing each other in an urban setting."

"That's the thing about public art," MacLeod said. "You'll never make a show that everybody will love—but they will talk about it, they will communicate with each other. And I think Durham is just so ready for that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Bull market for sculpture."

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