Painting the town
It’s standard fare to label Idaho’s capital city as the epitome of the hinterlands, or drag out the usual potato jokes. But how many know the real Boise? This is one Northwest city that merits a respectable place on the map, especially when it comes to the arts.
Take a stroll through downtown Boise or venture into the Hyde Park neighborhood, and the whole area opens up into one giant art collage. Galleries beckon, First Thursday receptions thrive, and the people come out in droves. Art runs the gamut, too, with jewelry, textiles and glass joining the more traditional mix of sculpture and paintings. Beyond the galleries, storefronts and banks convert display windows to sculpture showcases, and clothing stores decorate their mannequins in whimsical style, creating a living, breathing canvas of color.
For the uninformed, Boise is an outdoor city, one alive with sidewalk cafes, intimate wine bars and trendy microbreweries, most within easy walking distance of the distinctive capital buildings. An extensive greenbelt near the Boise River offers walking paths and bike trails linking much of the city, and world-class whitewater awaits adventurers just a half hour beyond the city limits. Sandpit volleyball abounds in apartment complexes, while stately old Victorian homes pay homage to the town’s founders.
Thanks to some forward-thinking city fathers and mothers, most of the vintage brick buildings downtown avoided the wrecking ball. And where new, more modern buildings edged in, the city promoted big art to camouflage differences.
One controversial new high-rise building construction site remains encircled by colorful murals done by the city’s schoolchildren in an effort to bring beauty to the downtown block. Even the back alleys have provided brick canvases to artists. Meanwhile, the restored Egyptian Theater offers independent screenings, the Old Boise district boasts inviting boutiques, galleries and coffee houses, and the capital grounds flaunt huge flower gardens. Boise is a great city for strolling.
In an effort to accentuate the outdoorsy feel, the city encourages plenty of public art, with nearly fifty pieces gracing sidewalks, plazas, exteriors and alleyways. The city’s Arts Commission distributes a map detailing the pieces, their locations and a brief history of each one, starting with Gilbert Riswold’s 1927 sculpture of assassinated Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, and ending with Mark Baltes’ 2004 Penny Postcard: A Hometown Greeting.
Karen Bubb of the Arts Commission recalls the city getting off to a wobbly start on public art, partly because program organizers didn’t recognize the deep desire to promote local artists.
“We hired an artist from California,” says Karen. “That didn’t go over at all well with the locals, so we started finding more of the local talent.”
Thanks to a climate that boasts “364 days of sunshine,” according to some, Boise is perfect for outdoor art. And it’s not art designed just for tourists and visitors. This is a resident population that celebrates Alive After Five on the Grove Plaza, cooling itself in the splashy fountain, and letting its children interact with the Ann LaRose 1985 sculpture, Keepsies, playing imaginary marbles with the three bronze children. International business people venture past Allison Sky’s 1999 River Sculpture, breathing in the cool mist pumped out by tiny pores in the 50-foot granite and fused glass “river” on the exterior wall of the Grove Hotel. And diners sample regional cuisine beside Great Blues, a sculpture of blue herons in a stream, by David Berry, or study Alley History, a ceramic wall mural of layered history and imagery by Kerry Moosman.
Of course the city emphasis on the arts didn’t happen without liberal financial backing. A brisk economy stimulated by high-tech companies such as Micron and Hewlett-Packard, and generous donations from prominent names such as Simplot, Albertson and Morrison, turned the spud capital into an arts mecca. The Morrison Center for the Performing Arts at Boise State University attracts national performers, a widely acclaimed Shakespeare Festival occupies colorful riverside digs, and a summer arts-on-the-green event showcases regional artists and artisans. A museum district further expands cultural offerings, with the Boise Art Museum attracting national and international exhibits (see the last issue of Artisan Northwest for the Edgar Degas exhibit profile).
For gallery owners such as Robert Kaylor of the R. Grey Gallery, Boise is the right kind of place to grow his art. Kaylor, a jewelry designer, came to Boise in 1978 after reading an ad. He recalls the town felt more industrial then, so he blended in with the traditional jewelry trade for a time, before establishing his own gallery.
“Boise’s art scene is great and getting stronger all the time,” says Kaylor, who carries other regional artists in his gallery and also sells his jewelry designs in Portland. “In some respects, it’s hard to rival Portland, but for a small city, Boise is gaining. There’s an openness here about what art is, and we aren’t so locked in to old definitions. We are seeing more galleries all the time and that’s great, because having a group of galleries in a certain location is much better than one gallery on an island.”
When it comes to an art presence, Boise, Idaho is no longer small potatoes.