New Arizona Prize: Mesa (And You) Win The Water Public Art Challenge
By Warren Tenney
A piece of sculpture at a public intersection was once considered public art. Things have changed. Public art has become more of an event, such as a community mural designed and painted through a partnership between an artist and neighbors. The City of Mesa has taken this idea to sophisticated levels. It is a city that knows how to pair artists with community groups and awaken the imagination within its residents, those with artistic skills and those without. That track record is one of the reasons Mesa is among the five winners of The Water Public Art Challenge, the third competition offered as part of The New Arizona Prize.
Here’s the challenge: Competitors were asked to create a temporary art project that honors the legacy of the ancestral Sonoran Desert people, whose irrigation engineering and agricultural achievements laid the foundation for life in the Valley. The prize offered awards of $50,000 to each of the top five teams.
Here’s the know-how: The idea of creating temporary, community-driven art installations was nothing new to Mesa’s Department of Arts & Culture. For the 2017 Main Street Prototyping Festival the city brought artists, architects, students and others together with community groups to create 22 prototypes of ideas that would enliven downtown Mesa. Once installed, these experimental models invited visitors to paint, write poetry, create music, or touch and play with kinetic art installations. For the 2016 Street Pianos Mesa project the city invited 24 artists and community groups to turn 24 donated pianos into works of art. Mesa then installed the pianos throughout the city’s public spaces for eight weeks and invited residents to sit down and play a while or just listen.
Here’s the difference this time: This time, it’s all about water. When the Mesa art team sat down for its brainstorming sessions for The Water Public Art Challenge, professionals from the Mesa Water Conservation and Water Resources divisions were at the table with the staff of Mesa Arts Center, as well as the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. Also attending were representatives from the i.d.e.a. Museum and archeologists from Arizona Museum of Natural History and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community, who were knowledgeable about ancient water canal systems and the culture the systems made possible. Tracing the history of the canal system that first brought water to our desert community was the foundation of the challenge, but the Mesa team wanted a project that also inspired residents to think about the role water plays in their lives and will play in the future.
Here’s the idea: Mesa resident Tony Duncan, five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer and Native American flute player, is the creative leader of the project and will help counsel and guide a team of four to six artists. These artists will conceive ideas for water-related art installations with the help of 12 community workshops open to anyone. During these workshops, artists will inspire participants to contribute their ideas about water through poems, stories, music and visual art. Participants do not need artistic skills or experience. The artists will help participants explore ideas about water through the process of making art. Some of the community art will be incorporated into the artists’ much larger art installations. Recordings of stories and music will create a soundscape for the project. The public art at the heart of the “Water=Life: Making the Invisible Visible” project will be on display for a week in November 2019 at Mesa’s Riverview Park. The park was once the site of more than 10 ancient canals and is adjacent to a water treatment plant, a fishing pond, splash pad and fountain. This environment and the installation will prompt visitors to think about the many roles water plays in our lives, the choices we make, and their impact on our future. Mesa also has applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant. If the city wins the grant, it would help to expand the project.
Here’s a little history: This is the third New Arizona Prize, an Arizona Community Foundation program dedicated to raising public awareness about water. The first New Arizona Prize sought the best digital strategy for raising consciousness about our water future. The winner was Beyond the Mirage, a team that created an interactive website to give visitors the means to make short water documentaries. The second year competition sought water innovations that could be scaled for mass marketing. The winner was Pima County's Southwest Water Campus, whose Pure Water Brew Challenge partnered with local brewers across the state to produce beer using purified wastewater.
Here are this year’s other winners: This year’s four other winning teams were Scottsdale Arts, A Deeper Map, The Continuum, Su:dagi Haichu Agga (Waters Story), Vesich eth ve:m (All of Us Together), We Are Still Here, and Water Heritage Collective, Portal to the Past.
For 49 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.