Kincart: 9th and 9th Whale Highlights the Importance of Community Engagement


Xianyao "Axe" Tang

The 9th and 9th Whale Sculpture in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, April 28, 2022. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Sydney Kincart, Print Chief, Opinion Writer


One of my favorite places in Salt Lake City is the 9th and 9th neighborhood. I love to walk down the street, window shop and try local restaurants with an iced chai from Coffee Garden in hand. Recently, I drove through the neighborhood and noticed the new whale statue. When I checked Twitter that day, it appeared a lot of other people were also confused. The 9th and 9th whale has garnered a lot of discourse in the news and on social media, with some arguing that it’s ugly and others in support of the public art.

However, the whale replaced a collection of community placed garden gnomes that inhabited the roundabout, which also sparked controversy. Whether you’re team whale or team gnome, the commission process for the whale relied on community engagement. This situation prompts us to get more involved with local politics to have a say in future public art installations.

On March 10, the Salt Lake City Arts Council released information about the whale statue to be placed in the roundabout at 900 South and 1100 East. The Salt Lake City Art Design Board recommended Stephen Kesler’s “Out of the Blue” for commission and Mayor Erin Mendenhall approved the sculpture. Kesler sculpted the piece by hand using recyclable foam and fiberglass. It represents that “9th and 9th is unexpected and out of the blue” as Kesler explained in an interview with the Salt Lake City Arts Council.

The sculpture will rotate through different murals created by different artists to show the dynamism of the 9th and 9th neighborhood. Mike Murdock painted the current mural of abstract sunrises and sunsets on the whale. He has a personal connection to the neighborhood since he worked at Caffé Expresso across the street from the roundabout for 11 years.

The art design board first designated funding to the roundabout in 2019. Staff worked with the Chair of the East Liberty Park Community Organization (ELPCO) and attended a meeting with the organization to discuss goals for the roundabout. A group of residents and artists worked together with help from ELPCO and met with people at the Salt Lake City Arts Council.

An open call for artists was issued in Dec. 2019 and a public information session was held in Oct. 2020. The Art Design Board then selected a proposal during their public Nov. 2020 and Feb. 2021 meetings. These information sessions aimed to engage residents and receive input since public art needs public opinion. But clearly, not many people cared about the art installation until now.

According to the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Q&A article on the piece, “From autumn 2019 to the present, the project was discussed in seven public Art Design Board meetings, two public info sessions, at an East Liberty Park Community Organization meeting, and through a community survey which received over 100 responses.” There were plenty of ways for the public to engage with the process so the installation could be in line with what the community wanted. But this controversy serves as an example of the importance of community engagement.

Residents of Salt Lake City can apply to serve on the Art Design Board and attend meetings on the first Thursday of each month, both virtually and physically. In an interview, Renato Olmedo-González, the Public Arts Program Manager for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, explained, “We always have a space at the very end in which we open it up for public comment.” This provides community members with the opportunity to attend the meeting and voice their concerns. “If people want to have a voice, they’re always welcome to join us,” he said, “They’re welcome to attend a meeting and to apply to become an art design board member.”

Also, residents and businesses in the East Liberty Park area of Salt Lake can attend meetings the fourth Thursday of each month in Tracy Aviary’s Education Room. These meeting are home to important discussions about various community affairs and are open to the public so residents should engage.

Olmedo-González also pushed the importance of the community councils that each neighborhood has. “We rely often on the expertise of the community councils that exist throughout Salt Lake City,” he said. All these organizations discuss and determine matters of much more significance than a whale sculpture. So, engagement in these public meetings is critical.

Residents had plenty of chances to voice concerns in community meetings about the 9th and 9th whale. Community participation in public meetings is essential to gauging the desires of the community. Get involved with community boards to have your voice heard in future public art installations. As Olmedo-González said, “This commission has demonstrated that public art really impacts people’s lives and the way in which we’ve used public spaces. It’s a very important tool that we have as a society to talk about and to have dialogue. It has an incredible power that not many other things have.”


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