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Free-Range Pianos Play On As Art

Everybody loves a piano.  But what do you do with one when it comes to the end of its days? Sometimes the innards can be salvaged for spare parts, but most owners wind up paying movers to get a piano out of the house. Thousands go to the landfill every year.

In Fort Collins, Colorado, any playable upright 48 inches or taller can live a second life as a Piano About Town. Donated instruments get a complete professional tuneup and a stunning paint job and then are released onto the streets for anyone to play anytime they want.

Two of Fort Collins' brightly painted Pianos About town

Two of Fort Collins’ brightly painted Pianos About Town.

What started in 2010 as a holiday gift to the community from the local Bohemian Foundation – which also brings dozens of local and national musicians to play for free at the city’s birthday party every August – has grown into a collaboration that combines visual and performing arts with community engagement. The pianos attract everyone from students who want to practice to virtuosi who give impromptu concerts, casual noodlers to daily players.

A few performers.  Some play improv. Others bring sheet music

A few performers. Some play improv. Others bring sheet music.

A partnership with the foundation, the city’s Art in Public Places program and the Downtown Development Authority’s Art in Action initiative places a baker’s dozen of pianos each year in different locations, from historic Old Town Square to the Colorado State University campus, in alleyways and plazas.

Mural artists are selected through a juried process to transform the pianos into works of art — and they do it in public, under a tent in the Square, where they can interact with passersby and bring the creative process out into the open. Some actually invite people to play while they paint.

The entire program costs about $30,000 per year, according to Libby Colbert, Art in Public Places program manager. Most of the expense is for a full-time piano tuner and the movers who pick up the donated instruments and take the painted pianos to different locations about every two to three weeks between May and October. Artists receive a stipend of $650 to paint a piano, and Colbert sees their creative input as a key ingredient in the community caring for the instruments in the wild.

“Nearby businesses ‘adopt’ a piano and agree to cover it with the (attached) tarp if it rains,” she said. “But lots of times someone has already done it, if it looks like the weather is getting bad. And regular players are very good about letting us know if a piano needs repair; they call or Facebook me. We’ve only had one piano tagged with graffiti, and that was only minor.”

Unlike in New York or Los Angeles, where street pianos travel through on limited engagements, the Pianos About Town live in Fort Collins and are open 24/7; most move indoors for the winter, but one usually stays out by the skating rink in Old Town.

And when a piano finally comes to the end of its days of wandering about, it might be lucky enough to play a third act. The gallery in the Fort Collins Lincoln Center commissioned five local artists to create works from decommissioned pianos for a May 2012 exhibit called Rescue and Redemption.

Necklace and earrings made from a decommissioned piano

Necklace and earrings made from a decommissioned piano.

“The Art in Public Places people dismantled four pianos, and let the artists go shopping for materials,” explained Gallery Coordinator Jean Shoaff. “We invited artists who were already using recycled materials in their work and challenged them to create something new. They selected everything from wood from the shell to the actions and other internal parts, and made everything from jewelry to a large interactive piece.”

…Colbert said Art in Public Places kept the large back panels and some of the parts for spares, but the artists consumed the equivalent of two whole pianos for the exhibit.

Shoaff said comments from gallery visitors were overwhelmingly favorable, and it’s quite possible that she’ll do it again, inviting different artists to participate as more pianos come in from the streets.

To see the transformation of a 1929 upright into the first Piano About Town for 2012, go to artist Laurie Zuckerman’s blog.