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Murals and mosaics multiply as public art spreads in Durham

The lights went out for Wheels Fun Park in 2020 after nearly four decades of skaters and birthday parties. Now tables are stacked inside the darkened interior and an overturned shopping cart sits outside the weathered building. But by the end of 2024, visitors can expect a refurbished skating rink with a new colorful flourish to its exterior — the latest in a growing number of public art works across the city. 

Project artist Dare Coulter hopes to finish final designs by May and install the artwork this summer, before the opening of the new Wheels Roller Skating Rink in the fall. 

The initial designs depict scenes of people rollerblading alongside iconic Durham symbols, like the Black Wall Street sign and the Bull City hand gesture, done in bright yellows and oranges. 

“Having the building itself be bright and colorful, so that it feels like you’re walking into a place of celebration…that’s important to me,” Coulter said.

A mosaic-covered bench by Durham Station. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal

Benches, bulls and more 

With a total budget of $143,000, the Hoover Road project is one of the largest public art installations Durham has undertaken since the establishment of the city public art program in 2011 — an effort that has accelerated in the last five years.  

Walk through downtown Durham and you may notice mosaic-studded benches outside Durham Station, depicting scenes of wildlife with glass and ceramic fragments. Look up on Rigsbee Ave. and it’s hard to miss the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage, adorned with orange, green and blue bulls. Drive down Fayetteville Street and you’ll see the vibrant portraits of prominent Durham citizens painted on the side of the newly renovated W.D. Hill Recreation Center.  

Wheels is a large-scale project, part of the $43.3 million “Splash and Play” project,  a combination of aquatics facility construction and renovation to Wheels and nearby parks. But even smaller projects can get an artistic element through the city’s public art program. For instance, the city’s renovated truck wash at the waste management facility now boasts an interior mural of cartoon trash receptacles. 

The public art program got a big boost in 2011, when the City Council passed a resolution establishing the “percent-for-art program.” This program allows up to 1% of the Capital Improvement Project budget to be set aside for public art projects. In addition, the city’s arts fund dedicates money for public art projects in every year’s budget, said Rebecca Brown, cultural and public art program manager for the city. For the last seven years, $75,000 has been allocated to this fund. 

“When you have a capital improvement project, it could be building a new fire station, or renovating an old building…we get a percent of that budget, the construction budget, that can go to public art,” Brown said..

The Durham Cultural Advisory Board and its subcommittee, the Public Art Committee, guide project selection. The City Council has the final say in approving the projects.

Although these committees have been around since their establishment in 2010 and 2011, Brown says the program became more robust in 2019. Since then, over 20 public art projects have been facilitated by the City of Durham, with city funds and also through state funding and external grants and collaborations. 

On April 25 a steel and porcelain mosaic historical sculpture at Merrick-Moore Park across from the Wheels site, depicting the roots of the Merrick-Moore community, will be publicly unveiled. Additionally, 2-D vinyl artworks at new solar-powered bus shelters across Durham are to be completed this year. 

“We now have more staff to support and provide technical assistance for local artists,” said Brown.

Durham is not alone in its efforts to attract and commission local public art projects. Chapel Hill, which established a similar percent for art ordinance in 2001, has sponsored murals, 3D projects, banners and more. Raleigh also has various grant and funding initiatives designed to encourage public art. 

Multi-colored bulls adorn the Morgan-Rigsbee Parking Garage. Photo by Audrey Patterson — The 9th Street Journal

A space for the ‘weird and unique’

In Durham, meanwhile, the Wheels Roller Skating Rink project leads a list of upcoming public art projects that will take shape in the next few years. Come fall, the exterior of the building will be brightly decorated, and adorned with “two-layer drawing[s] made out of metal” that interact with the building and stand in front of it. 

Although Coulter is a veteran muralist, she decided against simply painting the building’s corrugated surface, noting that murals fade eventually. Dare hopes her piece at Wheels can withstand time. 

Coulter said about the project.“I believe that I’m creating something that I’ve never seen before.” 

“Can we put art in every possible place that it can fit?” Coulter asked. “The more that we can do with the budget, the better for me… because immersive experiences are nice, and I believe communities deserve good art.” 

Coulter was selected for the project out of 35 applicants by a panel of residents, Cultural Advisory Board, Public Art Committee and city staff members. 

Part of the project budget has been set aside for community engagement. Coulter has published the project’s initial designs and is surveying community members about their relationship with the former skating rink and what they want to see in the art piece. 

She is also hosting a “Roller Skate Party” community engagement event related to the project on April 26 in Durham Central Park, with skating and a DJ. Coulter says she will be taking pictures so she can reference community scenes as she creates her final art piece. “I want it to be that…the people that they see in the piece, remind them of themselves,” she said. 

Durham’s public art programming initiatives may have come later than other area cities’, but its collection of works is expanding rapidly. Coulter says that Durham’s “artsy” nature allows for a diverse array of projects to take shape. 

“I think you need space for stuff to be weird and unique. And I believe that Durham is in a position to be able to be a city that forefronts unique and innovative art because they have funding available to make that happen,” Coulter said. “And they have a culture that supports innovation.” 

Above: Dare Coulter is designing the artwork to adorn the renovated Wheels Roller Skating Rink. Photo of Coulter courtesy of Lauren Lindley Photography 

Audrey Patterson