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The cost of culture: City brass at odds over public art policy

Max Collins/Daily
A sculpture in West Bank Park on Tuesday November 23, 2010. Buy this photo

Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 23, 2010

Following in the model of cities like Seattle and Portland, Ann Arbor established a program to use city funds to promote public art three years ago. But with only one project completed and a controversial installation in the works, some city officials are saying the program may not be a worthy use of public money.

The Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, started in 2007, is funded through the Chapter 24 Public Art Ordinance, which allocates one percent of every capital project estimate to the installation of a public art piece. Ann Arbor is the only city to have a program of this kind in the state.

Margaret Parker, chair of AAPAC, said despite criticisms, the program is something the community needs.

“You don’t just stay alive by just by having a job,” Parker said. “You need the things that feed your spirit and your soul.”

Public art, she says, is something available to the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week to every person who visits Ann Arbor.

“It is important for kids to see that their community values art,” Parker said. “To have art in your community all the time really says that arts and culture and the spiritual end of communication is just as important as buildings and commerce and education.”

According to Parker, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and the states of Maine and Ohio all have seen rewarding results from their Percent for Art programs. She said that these cities have been implementing the art programs for the last 30 years.

The first completed public art piece funded through the program in Ann Arbor is located at West Park on the corner of Seventh Street and Miller Road, and will be recognized at the park’s reopening in the spring.

City Council member Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said that when she voted on the Chapter 24 Public Art Ordinance to implement the Percent for Art program in 2007, she did not anticipate what the program would cost.

She added that the first project has been “expensive” and “controversial.”

“Certainly I didn’t know that in three years there would be more than $2 million put aside for art,” she said.

Briere said there are concerns with the program beyond expense, adding that with so many tastes to satisfy in the city some may question where their money is going.

“Expensive is perhaps the most important part here; art is controversial, and it’s not always a matter of taste — but what you do with the money is important,” she added.

Briere said she’s also not in favor of the program’s latest proposed project, a water piece designed by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl which is to be placed outside the Police Municipal building. The project has been given a budget of $750,000 pooled from funds set aside from capital improvement projects since 2005.

Briere argued against the art, saying that a piece like the planned Dreiseitl water art structure wouldn’t benefit the city.

“To me, that’s not worth having in place for twenty or thirty or forty years. I would not go out of my way to see this,” she said.

Briere added that though she would never go against the concept of public art, the community should be gaining something that is “consistently demonstrable” from the projects. Briere added that the $2 million that has been pooled for art projects so far has the potential to go further as funding for construction projects.

“I firmly believe in public art but I think how this has been structured is a mistake, it’s structured to take money out of funds that I’m not really certain can go to public art,” she said.

But, Sue McCormick, Ann Arbor public service administrator, said that the Dreiseitl installation, which features a “green” roof that collects storm water that the Police building accumulates, would be worth the money.

“This particular piece of art is going to be a landmark piece of art,” she said.