As the Home of Les Paul, Guitar Town Project is on Track for Success

Laurel Walker of the Journal Sentinel reported that Local Waukesha organizers say that the Guitar Town Project, after some initial bumps, is on track for its May 31 VIP opening reception and a public unveiling June 1.

Rick Congdon, Chairman of the private Waukesha GuitarTown Inc., said the project budget is about $84,000. It covers some guitar purchases, stipends of $300 to $750 for artists, public relations and marketing services, event planning and other expenses.

Among the opening weekend events planned are tours of Les Paul-related sites in Waukesha, including the Les Paul Monument; a burial plot he shares with his mother under a memorial that tells of his life and accomplishments.

Making appearances with performances will be The Les Paul Trio, who played with Paul every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York; Paul’s son, Rusty Paul, himself a guitar player; and Sammy Llanas, a Waukesha native and solo musician who formerly performed with the BoDeans.

The project expects to offset expenses with revenue from the sale of sponsorships – $3,000 to $5,000 for the small guitars and $8,000 to $15,000 for each of the large sculptures. So far, Congdon said Friday, the group had about $55,000 in commitments, including $15,000 from Carroll University and SPX Waukesha (formerly Waukesha Electric) and $8,000 each from We Energies, Waukesha State Bank and Sunset Bank.

Five of the regulation guitars will be auctioned at the VIP reception and online in hopes of raising money for charity.

“Those are pretty valuable guitars to the aficionados,” Congdon said, anticipating a good online response.

In addition to serving as a public art promotion, “We certainly want it to be a fundraiser,” he said. “Obviously it depends on how much the public buys into it.”

Money raised above and beyond the project cost will benefit an eventual Les Paul exhibit at the Waukesha County Museum and purchase of art and music equipment in Waukesha schools, he said.

Initial procedural and planning stumbles from the hastily launched and fast-moving project attracted some unflattering attention at first, however.

Mayor Jeff Scrima, who learned of the Gibson Foundation’s GuitarTown project from Waukesha artist/developer Jeff Seymour last year, appealed to Gibson officials to bestow the title on Waukesha. The 10-foot-tall guitar sculptures were ordered from a Wisconsin company in December, with Scrima signing the sales order in early January and announcing the project publicly a few days later.

Scrima had agreed to spend $15,160 from his charitable New Day in Waukesha Fund on seven of the guitar sculptures, with Gibson contributing three. He’d started the New Day fund, which is run through the Waukesha County Community Foundation, to fulfill his 2010 campaign promise to return half his salary to community causes. However, charitable-giving rules require that donations benefit a nonprofit or municipal agency – not private companies like the sculpture fabricator

So a check from the Scrima fund went to the Business Improvement District – a tax-financed agency dedicated to community improvements – whose president and executive director in turn issued a check to the fabricator.

After-the-fact approval for the action was granted by the BID board. But it raised questions concerning the transaction, about who actually owned the sculptures, how they were to be insured and whether the city bore any responsibility.

Scrima explained the initial turbulence this way:

“The opportunity to bring a nationally acclaimed public arts project to the City of Waukesha was simply too good to pass up. Of course in an innovative endeavor, change is being introduced, and sometimes that causes dissonance. But without dissonance, there’s no innovation.”

In a legal opinion issued recently, City Attorney Curt Meitz wrote, “At the outset, we have no reason to believe that the actions of the Mayor were anything but well-intended and for the purpose of promoting the orderly development and goals of the downtown business district. However, public officials must act consistent with all statutory requirements.”

He also warned the BID, whose operating plan and budget is approved by the Common Council, to act according to state law governing the public body.

Since then, the GuitarTown steering committee incorporated, took ownership of the sculptures and determined that either it or the sponsoring business would provide insurance.

Lynn Gaffey, an artist and gallery owner who sits on the GuitarTown Inc. steering committee, said she was recently in Los Angeles and saw its GuitarTown project on view in Hollywood. Of Waukesha’s, she said by way of comparison, “We’re going to blow their socks off.”

Scrima said he’s seen many of the nearly finished guitars and called them “incredible.”

“We have some very gifted artists in our region,” he said.

The guitar sculptures will stay in the city for three years, removed only during the winter months.

Waukesha Guitar Town Project artist Tom Noll

Image coutesy of Michael Sears, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our identity, being the birth and resting place of Les Paul, as well as moving Waukesha forward as an incubator and destination for artists, musicians and entrepreneurs,” he said.

As the home of Les Paul the city of Waukesha should not only be honored to host such an event, but it has an obligation to do so as well.

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