This summer it wasn’t hard to see elephants on the streets of London; they were everywhere. Created to support endangered Asian elephants, the public arts campaign placed 260 brightly painted fiberglass elephant sculptures all over the city to highlight the plight of Asian elephants, whose numbers have declined by nearly 90 percent over the past century. Each elephant was decorated by a well-known designer, artist or celebrity and then auctioned off, raising more than four million pounds for 20 conservation charities in the UK.
The elephants of London join a long parade of other civic public arts fund raisers. Back around 1998, Zurich placed a collection of 815 decorated cows around the city, bringing in more than a million tourists to gawk at the display. A Chicago businessman visiting Switzerland considered cows equally apropos for his hometown, which is famous for its old stockyards and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow who kicked over a lantern causing the Great Fire of 1871. He convinced Chicago to bring in some 300 fiberglass cows from Zurich, and then got local businesses to “buy” a cow and the services of an artist to decorate it. The cow project rounded up millions of dollars to support city arts programs.
Around 2004, both New York City and San Francisco followed suit, picking symbols of their city for their public arts fund-raising campaigns. Hundreds of “big apple” sculptures, decorated by well-known artists, popped up all over Manhattan as part of the Big Apple Fest, an initiative to promote the city and benefit charities. Businesses paid to sponsor an apple or kicked in more to sponsor it and keep it for themselves. San Francisco chose the heart as its symbol — as in the Tony Bennett song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco – and got 130 Bay Area designers and artists to decorate the sculptures, which were then auctioned off to local businesses, raising more than $2 million for the San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center.
In 2005, Munich sold off 500 decorated fiberglass lion statues, with proceeds donated to a children’s charity.
Today it is a delight to walk around these cities and encounter one of the sculptures. Everybody wins and the cities are better for it.