There's nothing like a little public art to tell the rest of the world exactly what your community stands for. Liverpool, England, for instance, is covered in miniature replicas of the city's hulking Superlambanana sculpture. That's artist Taro Chiezo's 8-ton (7.3-metric ton), 17-foot (5.2 meter) lamb-banana hybrid which has been reminding tourists and residents alike of the creepy aspects of genetic engineering since 1998, while also memorializing the city's most historically significant imports. And Athens, Georgia, a town famous for its fanatical devotion to its local college football team, the Georgia Bulldogs, has dozens of flashily painted bulldog statues on permanent display to remind residents who might have forgotten that SEC football is really, really, really important.
The City of Rapid City, South Dakota, however, decided to forego capturing mere local flavor in its public art. Although this city of about 70,000 residents could have gotten some mileage out of the nearby Black Hills or their history as an Old West outpost, they decided to take on the theme of the entire American presidency. Let it never be said that the people of Rapid City are not ambitious.
Granted, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is just 26 miles (42 kilometers) southwest of Rapid City, so the whole area has a bit of a patriotic vibe — there's even a presidential wax museum in nearby Keystone, South Dakota.
But in 2000, the "City of Presidents" project was born, the brainchild of Rapid City businessman and furniture manufacturer Don Perdue. He decided to honor the American presidency by commissioning life-sized bronze sculptures of all past American presidents, and placing them on every downtown street corner. To fund the project, Perdue started the City of Presidents Foundation, which has raised more than $2 million so far. This money goes towards the creation and installation of each sculpture — each one costs about $50,000.
The curators of the projects have worked to focus on the American presidency, humanizing the individuals in the office and not focusing on their politics. No political party or president is highlighted or given preferential treatment in the layout of the exhibit, and the five South Dakota artists (John Lopez, Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby, James Michael Maher, Edward Hlavka, and James Van Nuys) who have created the existing sculptures have done exhaustive research on each president to find out what made the guy — and yes, so far all guys — tick.
"All of the sculptures are really intricate — all the presidents are recognizable because they're doing things they liked to do," says Michelle Thomson, the president of Black Hills and Badlands Tourism Association.
And the presidents certainly are humanized on the streets of Rapid City. They're installed right at street level, so visitors can mosey up to their favorite commander-in-chief and look him right in the face — or sit in his lap. Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt are pretty casual, duded up in their Western gear, while Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren look as if they might be having a nice Sunday morning lounge with some favorite reading material.
John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln are deep in conversation with their young sons while George W. Bush and Gerald Ford pose with their dogs. Richard Nixon sits with his fingers tented, staring intensely into the middle distance, apparently plotting world domination. Everybody has their thing.
The presidents have been wildly popular with tourists, thousands of whom check in at the visitor's center each year, grab a map and take the presidential walking tour.
"The project has been a huge benefit to Rapid City," says Thomason. "Visitors love it and it's spurred other development downtown aimed at drawing visitors. Locals even put hats and scarves on the presidents during the winter months for people in need."
All 43 past presidents are now accounted for in downtown Rapid City, with the exception of Barack Obama, whose statue is currently in the works but will feature a smiling Obama in a walking pose. Donald Trump will get his after he leaves office.