Telling Wisconsin’s stories: Waterfall Mural Project

One of Arts Wisconsin’s most important jobs as Wisconsin’s community cultural development organization is telling the stories of the many ways the arts and creativity happen throughout Wisconsin. Our intrepid assistant Allie Schaitel discusses a recent exciting public/private collaboration in Madison.

The Waterfall Mural Project, Madison: A Story of Collaboration
by Allie Schaitel, Arts Wisconsin

A new project in Madison, Technology in Motion,” demonstrates a collaborative merger of private funding and public art which may inspire similar projects to showcase art and artists in Wisconsin and beyond.   Many people and companies contributed to the almost ten-story, 123-foot mural on the side of the 316 building (formerly AT&T) on West Washington Avenue in downtown Madison.


                                                 Photo © Ting-Li Lin/Snowforest

In January 2015 , Eric Hovde, owner of Hovde Properties, dreamed of an artwork to be the hypothetical “cherry on top” of the company’s $30 million renovation of the space at 316 West Washington Avenue.   The building needed a unique flair, something extra to set it apart not only to enhance the building’s impact and to benefit the community. This renovation revamped the entire building, as well as adding space for businesses on the ground floor (The Barre Code and Red Sushi) to revitalize and refresh both the building’s aesthetic and its purpose.

Hovde Properties contracted with CODAworx, a Madison-based company specializing in matching artists to companies looking to commission artwork, to utilize their RFP Toolkit Concierge Service. CODAworx (Collaboration of Design + Art), founded in 2013, promotes design and art collaborations at the intersection of industry resources (engineers, installers, suppliers), artists and creative (sculptors, muralists, public artists), and those who commission art (architects, art consultants, developers). CODAworx played matchmaker in the process, using their international reach, tools, and team to facilitate the selection process.

Artist Jonathan Brown of Modern Mosaics, Inc. in Houston was chosen from a pool of 54 international applicants to fill the space with his idea.

The project brought together many individuals and companies in Houston and Madison, including Hovde Properties, Pierce Engineers, Dimension IV Madison Design Group, H&H Electric, Snowforest, CODAworx, Modern Mosaics, and at least 15 individual artists. The city of Madison was a partner in enforcing guidelines and codes associated with construction and lighting.


                                          Photo © Ting-Li Lin/Snowforest

The building had been in disrepair with a less than appealing facade, and the addition of the iconic mural has added appeal and excitement around the space.  After nearly 16 months of work and a never ending list of logistical hurdles, the mural was unveiled in November 2016.  The work consists of 60 painted panels, approximately 500 blue and white LED lights, theatrical lights which give the illusion of falling water. At the bottom of the waterfall, a water fountain and arched glass pond awning will be installed in summer 2017. The combination of distinct materials allows for a beautifully complex outcome as art and a unique landmark for downtown Madison. The result of this addition is aesthetically attractive, bringing charm and a special flair to the building and city. Currently, the property is filled with small entrepreneurial tech companies and startups.

Nick Anderson, Online Marketing Manager of CODAworx, says, “Investors and communities can use this project as a model. This project is an example of how a local developer is taking the initiative to give something back to his community. While the art is privately commissioned, it is on the exterior of the building for public enjoyment. It adds to our sense of place and how we define Madison. It inspires pedestrians as they walk by and creates a landmark for visitors. I hope more Wisconsin developers, architects, and community leaders see the benefit of art in the community and the value that it not only provides to private stakeholders, but the public community as well.”

Eric Hovde of Hovde Properties reiterated Nick’s statement about the importance of investing in public art. “It’s not only smart because you’re adding something to the tenant base in your community, but [in the] long-run, you are going to get paid because you are creating more value and interest in that property. When you take a building and add unique art to it as a signature piece, it gives a feel that this is a special property because the owners put forth the investment and time and care to add something special. ” He also spoke at length about the value of art for a community, noting its benefit for people’s emotions and claiming “a piece of beauty or something that stimulates the mind will always have a positive effect.”

Throughout the process, the partners were concerned with the match and trust between the artist and the project, investment in aesthetic design and cultural vitality of a community, and collaboration between the public and private sectors. The project has resulted in an outstanding work of art and an extensive, explorative process involving creativity, partnership, and resources.


                                                               Photo © Ting-Li Lin/Snowforest

Arts Wisconsin interviewed the artist of the Waterfall Mural, Jonathan Brown:

Arts Wisconsin: There were many people and many companies involved in this project. How did the collaboration process work? 

Jonathan Brown: A big case can be made for collaboration when looking at the Waterfall project, but it should be noted that originally it was an idea. The architectural firm Dimensions, Madison Design Group created a concept for Hovde properties. Hovde took it to Codaworx. Codaworx put out a call for submissions. Modern Mosaics put in a proposal. Hovde liked our ideas, our experience, and maybe even our ability to contain costs. We won the bid… and were off and running.                                              

 So to explain the collaboration and what it does to a project. Hovde had a vision. They hired an architecture firm. When that happened, Hovde’s vision was changed a little by the architect’s concept. Then we became involved and we changed the architect’s vision. We needed lighting. We got Starlite Productions involved and they changed our vision a little. These changes continue all the way through installation, every project has it’s own evolution, even projects kept in the studio.

 The difficulty, as creative people, is being able to perceive those changes as enhancements rather than dilutions. It’s very easy for artists to become, in effect, married to a concept and resentful of additional input. The trick is to understand that there are experts in all aspects of a project this size. You can’t do everything. There are architects, engineers, lighting specialists, painters, designers, photographers, installation technicians, electricians… You have to start calling people and talking about the project. From those conversations, you can start to put together a picture of what the final project might look like, but in the end, you have to trust the other collaborators to be professionals that understand their trade. That they can execute the project the way that they said they would.

 This involves an enormous amount of communication. A question is rarely answered immediately. The answer is usually just more questions, but eventually everyone moves their pieces forward until the project is done.

What was the economic impact of the project for the partners? For the community?

Each company and individual that collaborated in the project bid on their piece of the job. Those bids had to be evaluated against the overall budget. If a company or individual can’t make money and execute their part of the project, there really is no way for them to participate in the project. This is important, because if the vision of Hovde involves expensive elements but their budget doesn’t fit the vision, the project can’t be done. Although on a project like this, everyone wants to be a part of it. So we saw a lot of creativity in collaborators making striking contributions to the project on a very low budget. So it’s tough to say what economic impact the project had on the partners. I’m sure that everyone made money and people were employed, but there is also the prestige of the project. The scale of this project helps sell more projects.

As far as the community is concerned, there are many communities affected by this project. Not just Wisconsin. Our production studio is in Houston where we employed a dozen artists, rented trucks, hired a crate making company, a crane company, accountants, bankers, our studio space, restaurants providing lunch… But then there is the installation company out of Dallas. Starlite Productions in New Jersey. Then in Wisconsin, the architects, engineers, scaffolding workers, photographers, hotel stays for the companies that were from out of town.

Then there is unmeasurable impact on downtown revitalization. I have friends in Houston that are asking family and friends in Wisconsin if they have seen the project. How many people are attracted to the area and spend money at restaurants and bars? Are other developers interested in Madison now that they see a downtown community revitalization project jumpstarting economic activity. This lessens the risk of other investment in the area, especially with a project as bright and optimistic as this one. Having a centerpiece for urban development helps everyone. People come to downtown Madison to have dinner and hang out and look at the Waterfall. You have to ask yourself, “Six months ago, would anyone have stopped and taken two minutes to look at that building?”

How can other investors and communities use this project as an example to follow?

I think economic development is hard to resist. As long as you can make the claims about economic development that were made above, then developers and investors will have a hard time finding reasons not to do something like this. It’s a lot of work, not just money. It is a testament to how much Hovde cares about Madison that they were willing to put this kind of work into the project. There are similar opportunities around the country where investors are trying to revitalize their own communities, but when you make an investment in a building as large as this one, you want to make sure that your investment has results. Even if it is a labor of love. The Hovde investment will have cascading effects for decades. In the end, the only measurable result will be the value of the real estate, but the effect on the community is really what closes the deal. Hovde could invest their money anywhere if they just wanted to make more money or keep their money safe. They chose to invest in a community they cared deeply about. We felt that love as we were working on the project, and it was an honor to be involved. If anything, Madison has a new friend in Modern Mosaics.

Are there any details you think should be communicated to Arts Wisconsin followers?

When you see a project of this size, you really have to step back and consider all of the steps involved – the number of people’s efforts that bring it to life. It’s an honor to be involved in a project that has this breadth and scope, to touch a community with something beautiful. Don’t ever underestimate whatever part you can play in making the world a better place.

Check out other articles published about this groundbreaking project:

(Photography © Ting-Li Lin/Snowforest, courtesy of