UniverCity Year projects propel Wisconsin Rapids toward public arts culture

Walking around Wisconsin Rapids, residents might notice music notes lining a fence, a bike rack shaped like a guitar, or a colorful mural on the side of a building.

These public art installations, which are now all documented in a digital public art inventory, create a sense of place, foster vibrancy, and inspire the community. Carrie Edmondson, associate planner for Wisconsin Rapids, hopes the online inventory will pave the way for more public art projects in the city. 

“The inventory reminds everybody that public art has really been a priority for a long time, and there’s some really good public art that is already here,” Edmondson said. “It brings that to the forefront. Public art has historically been something that we’ve prioritized in different ways.” 

The digital inventory and a strategic plan that guides the development and installation of  creative public art projects throughout Wisconsin Rapids are new initiatives that grew out of the city’s partnership with UniverCity Year (UCY) from 2019-22

Wisconsin Rapids staff were able to build off of the groundwork, which included stakeholder engagement, a community survey, and a final Policy Support for Public Art document, laid by University of Wisconsin–Madison and Ripon College students.

“The UniverCity Year students conducted a survey and did an inventory of our arts and recommended that a strategic plan be created,” Community Development Director Kyle Kearns said during a City Council meeting on Feb. 21. “We took it to the next step.”   

In 2022, the city began the strategic planning process with arts and cultural stakeholders, held a public workshop, and launched a survey before finalizing the plan early this year. Now, the Public Art and Creative Placemaking Plan and digital inventory are housed on the Creative Placemaking page on the city’s website.

“The UniverCity work helped us to better identify goals and next steps,” Edmondson said. “It has been great to be a part of continuing the momentum.”

Gavin Luter photo
Gavin Luter

UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said this is the goal of UCY: “Get cities to identify goals that advance community prosperity, gather community stakeholders, work on projects that could advance those goals, and have these projects assisted by students with faculty oversight.”

“We also showed that UniverCity Year could effectively partner with other higher education institutions,” Luter said. “Mark this down as a major win!” 

Create Wisconsin, the state’s cultural development organization, also supported the partnership. 

“It’s impressive that Wisconsin Rapids has put energy and resources toward developing its creative economy, workforce, and sense of place,” said Create Wisconsin Director Anne Katz said. “As the post-pandemic world comes into view and every community must re-imagine and revitalize itself, Wisconsin Rapids is a model for public-private cooperation and partnership united for a common goal – to make the community a great place to live, work, and play – for all.”

A screenshot of Wisconsin Rapids’ digital public art inventory

‘Launching off point’

As Wisconsin Rapids moves forward, Edmondson hopes to assemble a smaller stakeholder group to lead priorities identified in the placemaking plan. For example, this group could create a downtown walking tour organized around public art.  

In addition to these public art initiatives moving forward, Wisconsin Rapids has implemented a cultural initiative that was developed in partnership with Bolz Center for Arts Administration students. 

Emily Kent, chair of the South Wood County Cultural Coalition, said the city held additional focus groups after receiving the report to engage with underrepresented community groups. This effort led to the South Wood County Cultural Coalition, which now has 32 coalition members from 19 local organizations. 

The city held a cultural leadership roundtable and invited organizational leaders and elected officials. This spring, the coalition will be holding a large public meeting about its work. 

“We’re here to create networks, provide research, find out what is needed and make suggestions, and help people along the way,” Kent said. 

This work intersects with public art and placemaking. 

“Our biggest goal is to make our community more welcoming, and inclusive and one of those ways is placemaking and public art,” Kent said. “If you don’t see yourself represented here, you ask, ‘Where’s my place here?” 

“We see a lot about the paper mills and the white men who opened those paper mills, which is an important part of our story, but it’s not the only part of our story,” Kent said. 

Working with UCY provided a “launching off point” for the city to start the work that led to the South Wood County Cultural Coalition. 

“This was something that a lot of people were interested in for a long time. Working with the student group was just what we needed to get us rolling,” Kent said. 

A screenshot of Wisconsin Rapids’ Public Art and Creative Placemaking Plan showing a map of public art locations

‘Learning exchange’

Though the students’ recommendations have been adapted, Kent said the city gained useful information, new ideas, and a different perspective. She described the experience as a “learning exchange,” with students and community members learning from each other. 

Angela Richardson

Angela Richardson, project coordinator for the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, said the students gained real-world experience and insights into their professional capabilities and prospective careers. 

“It’s wonderful to watch students take what they’re learning in the classroom, apply it to the challenges presented, and contribute in meaningful ways to communities’ futures,” Richardson said. “The UniverCity Year program makes that kind of impact possible.” 

Mollie Oblinger

Mollie Oblinger, professor of art at Ripon College, echoed Richardson and said “taking (students) out of the classroom and the textbook” allowed her arts management class to better understand public art and its roles in communities. Her course focused on creating a public arts inventory for Wisconsin Rapids.

“The students really felt like they were doing work that was valuable and that would be realized,”  Oblinger said. 

As an instructor, Oblinger said the UCY experience motivated her to explore how to further include communities in her art courses. This year, she is doing a community project in Ripon with students and the Ripon Senior Activity Center. 

Ripon College President Dr. Victoria Folse said the work conducted by UCY, Oblinger, and Ripon College students is a “perfect pairing of academic theory and practical application.” 

“This project serves as a model for productive and collaborative work between the College and the greater Wisconsin community,” Folse said. “As a fine arts enthusiast, I’m also eager to increase accessible art to the larger Wisconsin community and proud of the role Ripon College played within achieving that goal.” 

During the UCY partnership, Oblinger’s students connected with the Bolz Center graduate students, demonstrating another layer of learning across academic institutions and with community members.  

The partnership between these courses and Wisconsin Rapids through UCY “honors the Wisconsin Idea by connecting UW students with community leaders throughout the state to work together on civic initiatives,” Richardson said. 

Luter underscored that both the UW–Madison campus and Wisconsin communities benefit by learning from each other. UW–Madison faculty, staff, and students benefit from on-the-ground learning, and communities access new ideas, research, and other information that help them move toward their goals. 

“We make the Wisconsin Idea come to life and make it a two-way street,” Luter said. 

–Abigail Becker