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Let’s Talk About It: Is Pueblo a ‘Gateway to the Southwest’ or a Destination?

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If art is supposed to generate conversation, what Ken and Judith Williams managed to provoke was a conversation on public art with intention of public improvements – this is no small accomplishment.

The City of Pueblo, along with help from private donations intends to build two 40-foot structures to tower over the Dillon Drive Bridge to serve as a “Gateway to the Southwest.”

The artwork is the signature Williams’ design, bold colors and a seemingly physic-bending brick design. Here Ken, Judith and Gwyn Williams’ work symbolizes the interchange of the Southwest — from the pioneers and Indigenous peoples, to farming and industry, these differing cultures are all mixed together as a statement and in some part intention to say that Pueblo is slowly waking up its needs to be something more to the outside.

And that something more, after the announcement of the project was made, was met with both compliments and complaints. That in itself is remarkable for a town that views city design as a tax paid by taking money suspiciously from vital programs and giving it to arts and culture entities. It’s a false narrative of course, but the fact the Williams’ design spurred on ire and awe could be as much of an achievement as building the installation.

Somehow “Gateway” struck something deeper in Pueblo, a discussion about itself, its place in the West and how it wants to redesign itself with intention. The “Gateway” spires won’t accomplish this alone, but it has started a discussion.

The project merits are admirable if not fantastical in scope as “Gateway to the Southwest” tries to angle itself into an already crowded slogan market. For the first time in decades, the way Pueblo talks about itself implies that its trying to be bigger than just the “smallest big city” — it’s the Home of Heroes one day, the Steel City the next. It’s a Bordertown, a 100% Renewable Energy City, the Chile Capital of the World, and lately CSU-Pueblo is going for the “People’s University of the Southwest.” All slogans, communicating Pueblo wants to be known in the Southwest.

But a Gateway City? Even though the artist and project managers didn’t intend this question to be answered, it has caused Pueblo to ask itself: the gateway to what? Just another stop until you hit Santa Fe? A gateway to box stores? Or a gateway to Pueblo?

If anything, it’s almost as if the slogan doesn’t match the design. Pueblo wants more of Williams’ designs. It wants more artists and their creations to signal to the outside world and itself that Pueblo is a beautiful and creative place. It wants more public beautification projects, at least sensible ones, and it wants to be known for something.

Being called “Gateway to the Southwest” doesn’t scream “Pueblo, Where the West begins.” That’s partially why the slogan has seen criticism. The slogan, not the artwork or its intention is not how Pueblo thinks of itself.

Possibly, the only design criticism that is fair is this: a giant welcome sign to Pueblo doesn’t deserve to be at two roundabouts and putting something with such grandiose sloganeering deserves a more grand location that puts itself front and center of viewer’s mind – similar to the Denver International Airport’s Blue Mustang known as “Blucifer,” or the Denver Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center.

That has created an opportunity for public art – really, the beautification of public places – in Pueblo County to move beyond the public seeing culture as a tax.  As with all major art installations, time will be the judge if “Gateway” recedes as just another fixture in a commercial landscape or if travelers interpret it, give it a nickname, and start to own its narrative. For it to get there, the display itself will have to own the space in north Pueblo, and to overcome the design hurdle of being just put on two roundabouts in a rather forgettable unremarkable area.

And the burden will be on the city to see “Gateway” not as an end to the means, but as a way to build iconic structures and displays from more artists.

The project itself must be a statement that “Gateway to the Southwest” really means a Gateway to Pueblo in terms of tourism, art, artists, and intention of how Pueblo thinks of itself.

Is this too much burden for one public art installation? That’s the entire point of public art.

This is where “Gateway” has succeeded and this is a credit to the artists. This announcement has forced Pueblo to think about the statement it makes to the outside world, to see itself beyond bricks, roads, and open spaces.