How Mary Poppins-inspired umbrellas became a global tourist magnet
By HANNAH SAMPSON | The Washington Post | Published: February 4, 2021
Every summer and winter, the Portuguese city of Águeda fills with visitors who wander the streets, turn their gaze to the skies and flood social media with cheery umbrellas that seem to float overhead.
The artwork, called Umbrella Sky Project, has expanded beyond the city’s borders over the past 10 years to shopping districts, downtown promenades and even theme parks around the world. Temporary installations have gone up in countries including Portugal, Bahrain, Japan, Norway, Spain and the United States.
Travel influencers pose under them. Pinterest boards are full of them. Architectural Digest in 2019 included Águeda’s umbrella-draped roads in its list of the “most beautiful streets in the world.”
“The motto is to color life, bring color to the gray spaces of the city and make the ones who pass by smile,” according to promotional material from Impactplan, the creative agency behind the umbrellas. “A simple idea that brings life and protection to public spaces and at the same time transports us to a fantasy world.”
And in an era when outdoor gatherings are the only option for safe coexistence, the project that is meant to offer a shared public experience in the open air has gained a new relevance - or even urgency.
“Public spaces are really the spaces where we come together as communities, where we cross each other, where we run into neighbors or bring visitors from out of town to show them proudly what our town or neighborhood or city is really about,” said Elena Madison, director of projects at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning and design organization. “They’re very important for a long range of reasons, but I think with the recent pandemic, we’ve seen how important they are for our social and for our physical health and well-being.”
Umbrella Sky Project started in 2011 as a result of a challenge to drum up more business on an Águeda street filled with small stores, said Patrícia Cunha, Impactplan’s creative director. The agency was experimenting with different types of work in public spaces, but ran into the problem of artwork disappearing.
“We started developing something that was a bit out of reach,” she said. Cunha said she drew inspiration for a colorful, unexpected fantasy scenario from Mary Poppins while embracing the symbolism of protection.
While the goal was to increase business in the area, 2011 and 2012 coincided with the rise of the selfie (it was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2013). Cunha said people who passed by found the hanging umbrellas “so weird” and started sharing photos. News about the art in Águeda spread.
“It was a viral thing,” she said. “At the time, it was very unexpected.”
The agency saw demand for the its services grow, with five customers in 2013 ballooning to 167 in 2020. That includes all art installations, but most of them have been Umbrella Sky projects, Cunha said. Depending on the size and scope, Impactplan charges between 10,000 and 100,000 euros. Projects go up for only three or four months because they can’t last longer exposed to the elements.
“The timeline creates a little bit of an urgency to go see it, take the selfie, be in the space, experience it,” said Madison, of the Project for Public Spaces. “This is a really wonderful example of how public spaces and really public space management entities are being really smart about those investments in public art and connecting them to other programming and building the name of the place as a place that is interesting and exciting and worth going to.”
That’s what Batesville, a small city in Indiana, is hoping to do this summer. The Batesville Area Arts Council is bringing the project to its downtown from mid-June until mid-October after its board president, Ethel Rodriguez, was inspired by a similar installation in Mexico.
Rodriguez discovered that an umbrella-filled selfie magnet takes a lot of work: getting permits, building a structure, securing permission from business owners to use a parking lot, working with different organizations to program the space.
But the arts council believes the effort will be worth it. They want to give residents of the city, located between Indianapolis and Cincinnati, a safe place to gather and they are aiming to draw visitors from surrounding areas to help boost local businesses.
“We were kind of hoping it would help with tourism,” said Anne Raver, the council’s community liaison. “It would just be a good place to hang out. If you decide to eat at one of our restaurants, you could eat outside. We just think the possibilities are endless.”
At Dollywood, the theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., partially owned by entertainer Dolly Parton, the idea was to add an immersive, visually appealing experience to a springtime Flower and Food Festival.
The plan for the 2020 festival had been in the works since 2018, but because of the pandemic, the team from Portugal couldn’t come to install the project. Instead, they sent instructions and walked the Dollywood staff through the steps over video calls.
Amy Owenby, vice president of product and planning, said that when the park reopened with new safety protocols and the festival ultimately ran from June through August, the installation represented much more than a photo opportunity.
“It was symbolic of hope and joy,” she said. “Our community needed a very strong aspirational message, our guests visiting our park needed a very strong aspirational message in those moments.”
She added: “It really did become kind of the emotional heart of the event.”
The project will return from late April until early June this year, again installed by the team at Dollywood because of the coronavirus.
Back in Águeda, where Impactplan is based, the umbrellas have become a local point of pride. Cunha said residents put umbrellas on their balconies; people wear umbrella hats.
“It became such a symbol of the city,” she said. “Although we do it in other places in the world, here in this city, it’s more of a tradition.”
The only problem, she said, is that travelers sometimes show up and find they’ve arrived during umbrella-free times. Cunha said her company is working with the city to have installations up consistently, changing the themes for different times of the year.
“We don’t want them to come and not find anything,” she said. “That is so sad.”