Walmart: Discount retailer. Grocery store. Patron of the arts.
When the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 168th and Harrison Streets opens Wednesday, visitors approaching the main entrance will be greeted by a white, 8-foot-tall sculpture, the original work of noted Omaha artist Catherine Ferguson.
“Willy Nilly” is a whimsical nod to everyday items. Among the objects depicted — a tea kettle, lamp shade, pliers, coffee cup, work gloves and beehive, said Ferguson, who was contacted by Walmart last summer.
The abstract sculpture, which is mounted on a red brick base, invites viewers to circle it and identify the two-dimensional cutouts, which form a lattice-like surface.
“It has a lot of things, and that's what their stores are about,” Ferguson said. “Everything is off-kilter a bit. There's a high heel in there.”
Ferguson's work dots the city and includes the 25-foot-tall sculpture “Totem” on the west side of the W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha and “Sky Fin” outside the CenturyLink Center.
“I don't know how they found me. They wanted an Omaha artist and they must have just asked around.”
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It's a first for Ferguson — a Walmart commission. “I had not associated Walmart with sculpture,” she said.
But it's not a first for Walmart.
“It isn't the first time we've used art to enhance our storefronts,” Walmart spokeswoman Cynthia Horning said. “A few locations across the country have art incorporated into the store design.”
Walmart chose the 168th and Harrison store as a stage for Ferguson's artwork because of its residential location, which is “right in the belly of the neighborhood,” Horning said. The 41,000-square-foot Neighborhood Market at 6710 S. 167th St. is ringed by homes. “We wanted to give the kids some place to sit down to look at something pretty.”
The store and the sculpture, which will be lit up at night, is visible from those homes, Horning said.
“We worked with our neighbors to create a storefront that reflected the beauty of its surroundings.”
While Walmart is criticized by some for sourcing its merchandise from outside the United States, the Arkansas-based retailer has not shied away from tapping widely known U.S. artists to adorn a half-dozen or so of its 4,600 U.S stores.
“What is really satisfying to me is the fact that they are looking at serious artists like Catherine Ferguson,” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency. “I know every step Walmart makes is scrutinized, and I am assuming that commissioning sculptures for their stores is calculated to be considered community-friendly, but so what? I like the fact they've commissioned a work of high quality and not necessarily realistic art.”
In Boynton Beach, Fla., two 15-foot stainless steel marlins pirouette in front of a Walmart Supercenter. Created by artist, Frank Varga, “The Gulfstream,” which was installed in 2011, not only greets Walmart customers but visitors entering the city from the south, according to Varga's website.
In 2009, an 8-foot tall bronze sculpture of a Wintu feather dancer performing a traditional Native American dance was dedicated outside a Walmart Supercenter in Anderson, Calif. The figure, created by artist Frank Lapena, was part of a mitigation agreement between Walmart and the Wintu tribe after the remains of a village were unearthed at the store's construction site, said James Hayward, a spokesman for Redding Rancheria, which represents the Wintu, Pit-River and Yana Tribes.
The dancer, which “overlooks the burial ground,” is intended to honor the tribes' ancestors, Hayward said.
Most Walmart store sculptures feature contemporary or abstract art with a few exceptions — including the larger-than-life bust of Sam Walton, Walmart's founder, and his dog “Ol'Roy,” which overlooks the supercenter in Walton's birthplace of Kingfisher, Okla.; and a sculpture garden “planted” with sprays of silver-colored metal ferns and palm trees sprouting from a pebbled landscape outside a Walmart store in Desert Palm, Calif.
This spring, Walmart erected an abstract sculpture called “The Thought,” which depicts a man resting his hand on his chin, outside a new store in Washington, D.C. The bronze and copper piece, by Robert Cole, a renowned D.C. artist, stands 16 feet tall.
And now Ferguson's white powder-coated aluminum sculpture flanks the Neighborhood Market in southwest Omaha.
“Working with Walmart was very easy. They knew what they liked,” said Ferguson, who supervised last week's installation of “Willy Nilly.”
“It would be fantastic to have more sculptures at Walmarts.”