Twelve years ago, painter Jesse “jmel” Melanson moved to the region as a kid fresh out of college who’d studied art but didn’t quite know what to do with it. After moving to Austin, Texas, in 2015, his creativity was sparked by huge buildings covered with murals — which, among many other mediums that appear for public viewing — have come to today be called “public art.”
Seeing the community uplifted by public art was inspiring. In Austin, unlike Truckee at the time, public art was well supported and funded by 2% of tax dollars allocated to every public use construction project. There was even a program to help artists like Melanson make their way into the public sphere.
Austin’s TEMPO program falls under the Economic Development Department’s Art in Public Places Program and introduces newer artists to the process of applying for a public art project, regulations, and installation of their artwork. Flash forward to today, Melanson has completed 12 large-scale murals across five states and is now a Truckee homeowner. Though his captivating Resilient Reno on the Nevada State Bank, Reno, and his conversation-starting Love Locus in Fair Oaks are among four projects in the surrounding region, one might wonder why he didn’t get his start locally.
“When I first left Truckee, I hadn’t really even thought about it. There wasn’t really much around here that I, at least, was inspired by or saw,” he said. “Moving to Austin, it’s all over the place and they advertise for it a lot and put a lot of attention on the cultural aspects of art and community and bringing people together through public art.”
Changing this narrative for Truckee, along with supporting local public artists, is exactly the goal of Kings Beach public artist and art advocate Sara Smith. She’s co-chair of the Truckee Arts Alliance, a grassroots organization operating under Nevada County Arts Council, a state-designated local partner of the California Arts Council.
In 2017, just after Melanson had begun to discover the City of Austin’s propensity for supporting arts and culture, the ball started rolling on a change that would enliven Truckee’s art scene, one day hoping to match that of major cities like Austin, Salt Lake City, or California art destination town, Carmel. Smith and the team at the arts alliance were just one of the groups that helped coordinate the effort to establish Truckee as a California Cultural District.
The cultural designation process required participation from multiple entities, so the Town of Truckee, Chamber of Commerce, Visit Truckee-Tahoe, and the Public Art Commission of Truckee (PACT) came together to show their support.
Today, Grass Valley/Nevada City together and Truckee are both Cultural Districts, making this the only county in the state to contain two. Securing this status meant that Truckee has a proven concept of cultural assets worthy of recognition and protection. For example, as part of the application process, the then in-progress Truckee Artist Lofts development was used as a model by local organizations who are committed to helping creatives stay in the community.
Simultaneous to this designation, the Town of Truckee began to draft a Public Art Master Plan, made up of language already identified within the Community Character Element of the Town’s General Plan, which is revised every 10 years. The plan was approved in 2019.
The Town of Truckee then founded PACT in 2020. It was a team of seven experts from a variety of fields designated to act as an advisory group to assist the decisions of the Truckee Town Council related to public art projects.
“When you look at what has happened with public art in the past here, it was basically like, ‘Well it’s here, it’s available …’ but without much of a public or formal process to what was going to go where, to decide what we do or don’t want as a community,” Smith explained. “Now, with the Public Art Commission, [its] work has been to take what was established with the Public Art Master Plan and work on the nitty gritty of implementation.”
ARTISTRY ABOUT: Public art doesn’t necessarily have to be located outdoors. Community as Ecosystem is inside the aquatics center at the TDRPD Community Recreation Center, left, courtesy photo. At right, is a musical member of the Rusty Ramblers, more commonly known as The Band, in downtown Truckee. Photo by Sarah Miller/Moonshine Ink
Though Melanson and Smith have both done municipally funded projects, the two assert that most of their work has been invitational and privately funded. Melanson applies for hundreds of projects per year through online web aggregates that list nation-wide projects, but says that wherever there’s an “art commission” type entity with a local listing board, the chances of getting a project are much higher. In today’s world, public artists walk a fine line of wanting to get their art out there for public consumption yet still needing to be paid a living wage for doing their job, so finding enough projects to keep money coming in is key.
Becky Bucar, engineering manager for the Town of Truckee, is also the PACT staff liaison. The priorities of the group, she said, have included creating an art inventory of past projects already owned by the town and beginning to articulate specific ways in which new projects should come about. Another goal is to create a working list so that artists like Melanson know what to apply for and how.
Until recently, artists approached the town with ideas and offers to create public art. While sometimes successful, navigating the regulations behind each individual project without a specific set of guidelines was a complex process.
“There are a couple of huge benefits from having the town own a public art commission and now formally owning art on public land,” Smith said. “It helps to facilitate everything you need to do, such as interface with Caltrans, for example. It helps a lot to have government entities talking to one another and not an artist trying to navigate that. Most importantly, it’s a manifestation of a very real intention by the town to say, ‘we prioritize this to the point that we’re going to dedicate time, energy, staff, and ongoing time and energy.’ Now the town is actually responsible for this art.”
Moving forward, PACT has created an initial $50,000 pilot project. It selected the Brockway retaining wall, solicited for submissions, and reviewed eight proposals before selecting one.
DRAGON MASTER: El Dragon welcomes beachgoers at the West End of Donner Lake. Based on the design of two second graders, Hope Smith and Florian Standteiner, it is meant to honor the Chinese who worked on the railroad in Truckee. Photos by Juliana Demarest/Moonshine Ink
In addition to this they’ve met other goals: completing an art inventory, developing an initial opportunity site list, and starting to work on a gifting policy. So, when people come with a donation of a piece of art there’s a process.
Bucar adds, the team “still needs to work on figuring out a more established annual work plan, and a list of projects we want to work on, with a budget …”
Currently, the commission has taken on a large pilot project that might be completed at the span of say, one per year. Eventually they want to establish a running list of sites and possible projects so that maybe one year is spent on a big project, with the following spent on many smaller ones.
For artists like Smith and Melanson, the local push for public art is a game changer.
“[Public art] encourages people to talk to each other and feel inspired to go outside. It empowers communities,” Melanson said. “The way I see public art is that it’s uplifting, powerful, memorable. When I see something that’s like an expression of my community in a space every day, it makes me proud to be a part of that.”
For Smith, a huge part of the backing for public art also includes the ability to access more funding for working artists. First, she says, we need to do away with the concept that public art gives an artist “exposure,” and instead focus on paying them a competitive wage. With the cultural designation and PACT in existence, securing funding for projects will be easier moving forward. Then, we need to approach the issues that come with a rapidly expanding region.
“How do you address issues of gentrification? The artists move in, and they make it cool and everybody else wants to be there and then the artists get priced out,” Smith said. “That’s happening on a number of levels here and it’s not just about arts and culture. As a longtime resident … I want to see all of those things addressed. That’s something that’s been a major part of the conversation.”
MURAL MURAL ON THE WALL: Local teens paint a colorful, fun, mural, featuring favored modern activities, while at the same time giving a nod to elements of the past that help the region become what it is today.
Bucar says that positive changes to Town of Truckee plans have already been recommended by the commission.
“There’s a community character element which, for the most part, includes a lot of the goals that are in the Public Art Master Plan, but just recently our commission made some recommendations, so we’re already seeing some changes,” she said.
Bucar adds that the general public is encouraged to provide feedback on public art projects at PACT meetings. In addition, the commission is currently seeking a member for its Arts Advocate position. Finally, any artists interested in receiving updates on applications for new projects are encouraged to add their name to a database operated by the commission online at townoftruckee.com.