Decades ago, "city art" meant bronze statues of war heroes. Today, a cavalcade of mural-painted fiberglass bovines dot modern metropolises doubling as photo props for out-of-town guests and ushering "herds" of city folk from one attraction to the next.
Cows, long used to advertise ice cream parlors, dairies, and Chick-fil-A, have become a cosmopolitan icon, replacing the war memorial as the quintessential city-art sculpture and raising some serious dollars for local charities.
When Chicago let cow sculptures – about 300 of them – "roam" its streets in 1999, city officials estimate it got a $200 million boost in tourism revenue. It also raised about $3.5 million for charity when, at the end of the public exhibit, the statues were sold at auction.
In 2000, New York City let cows "graze" on sidewalks and in parks, raising about $1.5 million for charity.
Dozens of cities around the world have embraced "art cows" since Zurich, Switzerland, held the very first cattle-grazing event in 1998. Art cows have been spun off to include other animals, such as pigs in Cincinnati and Peoria, Ill., moose in Toronto, bears in Belfast, Maine, and buffaloes in – where else? – Buffalo, N.Y.
Event organizers say the decorated animals spark civic spirit and showcase the talent of local artists, many of whom are commissioned to transform the white, life-size animal molds into street art for about $1,000 each.
"There's a great deal of civic pride when you can host a cow parade," says Patrick Geoghegan of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which is sponsoring a summer-long painted-cow exhibition in Madison, Wis., through Oct. 13. "We expect a million sets of eyes, and many will come from out of town," he says. That promises to provide a healthy spike in tourism dollars spent in and around the city of about 205,000 people.
In Madison and elsewhere, businesses, community groups, or individuals can sponsor a cow for about $5,000. The fee covers the cost of the blank fiberglass bovine, paint, other materials, and the $1,000 artist's fee. In return, the sponsor gets to place a plaque, bearing its name, on the base of the animal. Event organizers take a small cut of the sponsor fee, while the money raised in the "bovine auction" all goes to charity.
While it's difficult to gauge how much economic impact the cows and other painted animals have on a city, charities like New England's Jimmy Fund, which is sponsoring a summer-long cow exhibition in Boston, say it's a significant fundraiser.
"This is a major program for us for this year," says David Giagrando, director of cause marketing for the Jimmy Fund, which raises about $180 million annually for medical research. "We hope to raise about $700,000 from this event when the cows are auctioned off."
Buyers of the cows are wide-ranging, says Ron Fox, vice president of CowParade Holdings, a for-profit organization that helps cities put on art-cow events. "Most go for about $7,500 to $10,000," he says of the sculptures.
But in 2003, one called "Waga-Moo-Moo" and covered in Waterford crystal, was sold for about $146,000 to a restaurateur in Dublin, Ireland. It's the highest price paid for a painted cow. While "Waga-Moo-Moo" plays hostess at a restaurant, other cows bought at auction wind up in hospitals, schools, corporate lobbies – and in people's living rooms and gardens.
Why cows? It's a universally loved animal, Mr. Fox says, "and the shape of a cow is a great canvas for artists."
Yet some view the fiberglass "cattle crossings" as an out-of-vogue nuisance. Allison Campbell, a 20-something blogger who moved to Madison from Chicago, has seen the fanciful art cows in both cities, but her enthusiasm about the animal-inspired city art has waned since the Chicago event seven years ago.
"I have nothing against cows," she wrote on her blog on the day of the Madison opening. "I'm just ambivalent about their man-made cousins."
The art-cow event also has fielded its share of criticism from art critics, some of whom say the event is less art and more mannequin parade.
"The ubiquitous question is, 'But is it art?' " says Louis Torres, coeditor of Aristos, an online review of the arts. "The answer is no," he says. "The cows are more closely related to mannequins, which at least have a legitimate utilitarian function – to display clothing."
Mr. Torres saw the art cows displayed around New York City, where he lives, but lumps the animal sculptures in the same nonart category as clocks, teapots, and lamp bases. "There's a banality to the [cows]," he adds.
But Fox of CowParade says the "Is it art, or isn't it?" debate is not what the event is all about. "Our intent is not to produce a high-art event, but [to] bring very accessible art to the public," he says. The artist, in turn, benefits from the exposure as does the sponsor.
Beaman Cole, a professional artist who painted two cows – "Tea Party Cow" and "Leav'n Town Cow" – for the Boston event, says art cows are exactly what art is supposed to be: fun.
"Anytime you're doing something that conveys a feeling and some sort of idea, it's art," he says. "It doesn't matter whether it's a canvas or a cow."
Although art cows and other painted animals have evolved considerably – becoming more creative and sophisticated – in the eight years since Zurich, they face considerable challenges in the future: vandalism, for one.
In Paris, where art cows are on display through the end of summer, more than 40 percent of its 80 cows have been vandalized – or stolen outright – compared with about 3 percent of the cows that "pastured" in Chicago and New York.
The most common act of vandalism is graffiti. But in Madison, which has a large population of college students, "cow tipping" (whereby the cow is tipped over onto its side) is increasingly popular and problematic – particularly to those cows located near downtown bars and nightclubs.
Some cities have taken action against vandals by either moving the cows to other parts of the city or by having volunteers patrol the cows at night, when most of the vandalism occurs.
Yet, Fox says, the joy the art-cow event brings to a majority of locals and tourists far outweighs its criticisms and challenges.
His take on the future of city-dwelling bovines?
"Mooo-ve over," war memorial, the fiberglass art cows seem to be here to stay.
Painted fiberglass animal sculptures have descended on many cities across the United States and around the world this summer, with cows being the most popular. Here's a partial accounting:
Cows – Boston; Denver; Madison, Wis.; Paris; Edinburgh, Scotland; Lisbon
Bears – St. Joseph, Miss.; Tahoe, Nev.
Cats and dogs – Scottsdale, Ariz. (various); Aspen, Colo. (Labrador retrievers)
Dragons – Naperville, Ill.
Llamas – Ludlow, Vt.
Ducks – Larchmont, N.Y.
Deer – Bellevue, Wash.
Pigs – Oak Park, Ill.