Rural Roots: Zen and the Art of Having an Art Wall (Part 1)

By Larry Grieco, library director, Gilpin County Public Library, Black Hawk, Colo.

Author's note: This is the first installment of "Rural Roots," a blog about rural librarianship and its challenges. In upcoming articles I’ll be sharing ways in which many of these challenges were met and overcome in a small library in Colorado. I hope to have something new for you at least once a month.

We all remember the movie “Field of Dreams” and the line, “If you build it, they will come.” Something like that applies to the art wall at the Gilpin County Public Library. (Come to think of it, it also applies to the library itself.)

Since the library building was built in 1995, there has been a wall in the meeting room dedicated to art exhibits. What makes this wall especially suited for hanging artwork is that it’s covered with carpeting from corner to corner and from floor to ceiling. This means any number of exhibits can be hung and taken down, with nails and hooks getting hammered in and pulled out countless times, with no damage to show for it. In fact, in 2001 we turned the corner of the art wall to devote a second wall to the work that was on display. (We carpeted the second wall as well.) Having that double wall space has prompted a series of outcomes, some of which we could never have predicted.

First, the obvious happened. We began offering local artists the opportunity to show their work, most often one artist at a time. We got the idea that we could augment this practice of showing off local talent by purchasing a library collection of art prints and framing them; this way, we would always have an exhibit ready to put up between local artist shows. We shopped the catalogs and selected 25 fine-art prints of works by a number of classical and a few well-known contemporary artists: van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Rivera, Monet, Cezanne and Cassatt, among others. We wrote a grant proposal to a local foundation, but it was turned down, so the Friends of the Library stepped in and funded the project to the tune of $2,500.

For nearly 14 years now, this set of framed prints has graced the art wall on a number of occasions, usually between “live” artist’s shows. We’ve gotten into the habit of putting up this set of prints around the holiday season as well, just for the fun of it. The exhibit always garners excitement and positive feedback from patrons, and it was an early success that began to forge a partnership between the Friends of the Library and the director. We thought, at the time, of another famous movie line: “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and it proved to be true.

Another rather amazing thing that happened by virtue of having the art wall was that we forged a partnership with the Gilpin School (elementary, middle and secondary), where the kids from kindergarten to senior high produce work in their classes during the school year. Just before summer break, the library director selects “prize-winning” art from the schools, and we hang the first-place, second-place, third-place, and honorable mention for each grade level on — you guessed it — the art wall. The kids’ work remains on display all summer long and, after doing it for the last seven consecutive years, it has become a tradition — one that forms a colorful and striking backdrop to the summer reading program activities. Kids (and their parents) come in to see their work displayed at the library, while members of the whole community take pride in the art work that Gilpin County kids are doing.

There are a few more things that have evolved from the sheer presence of the art wall, and I’ll be describing them in Part 2 of “Zen and the Art of Having an Art Wall.” Tune in next month to www.programminglibrarian.org.

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