Jennifer Simmons, COO
In Rensselaer, there is something happening that can only be described as an arts phenomenon. The city, with just under 6,000 residents, is home to more than 60 large-scale public murals, and counting. This level of commitment speaks loudly to the pride this community has in itself and their clear understanding that investing in quality places goes hand in hand with retaining and attracting talented people and their families.
It all started in 2016, with local business owner Ryan Musch, who recruited a newly famous street artist named Cameron Moberg to paint a mural in downtown Rensselaer. Moberg’s work had an immediate impact on Musch and the rest of the community, leading to what is now arguably one of Indiana’s most robust public art programs. In fact, Moberg’s initial impact was so great that he continues to curate Rensselear’s mural program and returns to the city from his California home multiple times each year.
With a vision to create a collection of murals, Musch marshalled several contributing agencies and launched Ren Art Walk, an organized way for the public to view these massive “canvases” while strolling through the heart of Rensselaer. While the walk has gone through some transition in recent years, it is still drawing Rensselear families downtown, as well as tourists from around the region and state. Rensselaer Mayor Stephen Wood noted, “The public gives us a lot of great feedback about the artwork. You can rarely drive downtown without seeing at least one family enjoying the murals.”
Bonnie Zimmer, a local artist and board member of the Prairie Arts Council, praised the city’s leadership for their ongoing support of arts initiatives that seek to enrich the lives of Rensselaer residents. “The city is a great friend of the arts and with its current focus on the murals, we are excited to see the program continue to grow, enhancing the city of Rensselaer as a unique destination. The mural program has commissioned artists from around the globe and to do so takes a commitment and understanding that the entire community will benefit from arts programming,” said Zimmer.
Through the support and in-kind resources of the city, various non-profit organizations, and even ordinary citizens through GoFundMe, support for the mural program has continued to grow consistently over time. The Indiana Arts Commission and The Arts Federation, Jasper county’s regional partner, have supported the program financially along with the significant financial investment of the Jasper County Economic Development Organization.
Without such broad support, the mural program could have come to a halt in 2019, when a downtown fire led to the destruction of a large building that was home to one of the city’s beloved murals and numerous smaller murals. This unfortunate loss may have a silver lining, however, because the now vacant land is slated to become a public green space with lighting and easy viewing access to a main alley filled with beautiful works of art.
The vibrant colors, diverse yet synergistic styles of the murals, and the enthusiasm with which the city has embraced this innovative activation of otherwise blank walls, impressed attendees at a recent Aim Roundtable for towns and small cities. Several attendees have either made the trip to Rensselaer to see the program for themselves or written to offer words of congratulations for this impressive commitment to public art. In Indiana’s race for talent, Rensselaer will not be overlooked.