I had the chance to meet Bryce Robinson through a mutual friend and later found out that he had started Jeske Sculpture Park in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri. The park is seven acres in the heart of the city of Ferguson, a name that drew even more interest from an outsider informed solely by the national media of the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death in 2014. What is more important was how one person could change the landscape of a community with a vision, hard work and art.
Jake Weigel: What’s the history of Jeske Park? Where did it start?
Bryce Robinson: The site is one of the first, if not the first, sites established in the city of Ferguson that was formally designated as a public park. The city of Ferguson was founded in 1890 William B. Ferguson who was a farmer and landowner who gave a chunk of his property to the Wabash Railroad to set up a train station and that become the locale for one of the first suburbs of the city of St. Louis.
At some point between 1939 and 1948, Mayor Fred Jeske set up Jeske Park, which was at the center of a new development. The vision for the park was that it remained a natural landscape. Eventually there were creeks running through it, walking paths, street lamps, baseball field and that was it. It is one of the only parks in the city of Ferguson not to have playground equipment on it.
JW: How did Jeske Sculpture Park come into existence?
BR: There came the opportunity to propose new amenities for the existing park site in 2012. There was a meeting to determine what to do with this opportunity with 30 to 40 people in attendance. I pitched the idea of a sculpture park when it became apparent that there were to distinct sides or factions at the meeting, those for a more natural park and those for more development. A month later I presented a formal proposal to the neighborhood association. They liked it and I gave it two more times to make sure we had a full consensus. I pitched it to the parks department as recommended by the neighborhood association and then gave the presentation to the city council so they were interested in supporting it from then on.
The park was legislated into reality because we felt it was important have a formal structure for Jeske Sculpture Park and that it be recognized as a sculpture park. We wanted to do some creative infrastructure projects, some cast iron manhole covers that have the park logo or designs with embellishments. We wanted to design and commission new hand rails for the parks central bridge, and that is a project that we’re still looking at doing. We’ve talked about overhauling the backstop and doing a more sculptural designed backstop that complements the overall concept of the park.
JW: So you’re really focusing on a cultural identity not only for Ferguson or the St. Louis area but a very specific neighborhood and the history of it.
BR: We saw this idea as a way to enhance the park in a place that people would not expect to encounter that kind of cultural experience. The city of Ferguson is located in north St. Louis county and is perceived by many people in St. Louis as being lower income, being less affluent, primarily African-American and as a place that is avoided in many regards by the wealthy and the white. For me, this was something special that we can boast about and build upon as part of our identity.
JW: Once you had the approval, how did you develop the structure? Did you develop a 501c3, non-profit?
BR: Once it was formally changed from Jeske Park to Jeske Sculpture Park, that was what we needed to move forward and develop the 501c3, Friends of Jeske Sculpture Garden, which is the fundraising entity. We wanted to make sure we weren’t using any city funds for art because of the divisive political views on that. It’s a five-person board with three designated seats for professional artists, one permanent seat for a member in the neighborhood association and one permanent seat for a member of the parks board of the city of Ferguson. So we put out a call, we vet the artists and then bring them to city council for the final okay. We notify the artists, bring them in and use the funds raised by the 501c3 to provide stipends. The city provides installation assistance and poured all of the pads.
JW: Does the city still help with maintenance?
BR: Well that’s the great thing about developing a sculpture park in an already existing park. It was part of the discussion and what made it so easy to buy in that there was no additional maintenance. They have a little less grass to mow and have a to weed-eat around the pads. As far as the works go, if there’s a problem with one, whether its been vandalized or another issue, I’m the person that’s going to get the phone call. I think that if there’s any part of this that can be shared as a potential model, that local governments can work with even the smallest arts organizations to set up high-impact projects with really minimal investment.
JW: How did you get the funding to start this?
BR: The initial seed money came from the city paying for the pads and that was cost-effective for them. The art itself is on loan through honorariums that the artists receive. I gave a presentation to the Ferguson Lion’s Club, they were excited and wanted to contribute. So they are the angel donor for the first round. We wanted the initial exhibition to be successful to get people excited about it so that we could approach a broader base of fundraising. As everyone, we’re looking at grants, Kickstarter, and other, larger organizations and local businesses to help out.
JW: What were the examples that you were able to show in the initial meetings? What was your model based off of? Were you showing specific artists or sculpture parks?
BR: What I found to be helpful was Photoshopping images into pictures of the park. I took photos of the park showed a broad spectrum of work. There was Tony Cragg on one side of the spectrum and some undergraduate work I had seen and dropped into the image on the other side. The scale of the proposal was more ambitious than what is represented in the first round but establishing from the beginning that you have the vision to go there is how you get support for it. I plan to deliver but it’s going to take years.
JW: What was the first year that this happened and who are some of the artists?
BR: We cut the ribbon in 2014 and had the opening a few months before Michael Brown was shot. Since then the context really changed in the city. For the first round I worked with artists that I knew personally and trust very much. Many donated there time and would forego the honorarium to contribute, which was great since we were able to bank our money for future exhibitions.
JW: So a lot of local artists?
BR: So we have 10 pieces by eight artists representing seven states. We were able to work with people from as far as New York with Matt Wicker and Elizabeth Kronfeld each with one piece. Austin Collins is a professor at the University of Notre Dame and another colleague Bill Kramer both have work in. I have a couple pieces and part of that I was conservative with the budget in order to fill a few spaces with my work and get those spots secured and I know I can move my work out at any time.
JW: What are future funding plans for 2016?
BR: Since the context has changed with all that’s happened in Ferguson, I’m cautious. I would like to use Kickstarter while we have the nation’s eye. I don’t see it as a long-term sustainable funding mechanism but as a way to boost us forward. I would like to do an ambitious show in 2016. I worked with a lot of artists that ended up being white and male. I have two female artists as well but am working on connections with a number of African-American sculptors. I want to do an exhibition that’s more open as far as racial demographics and as far as perspective. I would love to see work that is relevant or maybe reactionary to what’s happened in Ferguson. I think that’s really important and we would be offering a space to comment on what has happened from an outsider or an insider perspective. However I also think it’s important that’s not the entirety of the show. So that the viewers, who are primarily local residents have a variety of viewpoints expressed so that they have the opportunity to find something in the park that they identify with and are interested in.
By Jake Weigel
For more information visit http://www.fergusoncity.com/525/Jeske-Park-Sculpture-Garden, http://www.bryceolenrobinson.com/#/highlands/