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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

BY ELYANA TWIGGS
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.

“Given the nature of the art installation and the worldwide renown of this artist, I think that this range of cost is commiserate with the type of art installation that it is,” she added.

McCormick said that the money being allocated to this project has many different features, from the artist fee to the reservoir for the rainwater underneath the building.

“This isn’t just a bronze sculpture,” she said.

Council member Stephen Kunselman, (D–Ward 3) said that the funding recommendations to develop the Dreiseitl public art project were given to city staff by the city attorney, but were kept from other council members. Kunselman added the funding for the Dreiseitl public art project is comprised of revenue from utility bills, and that therefore city residents deserve to see tangible results.

“I think that public art is good for our community, but I don’t believe that we should fund it in such a way that is illegal,” he said. “And until the city attorney provides a public opinion, I have to assume that it’s illegal.”

Kunselman said that his sentiment is shared by few others on council. He said that especially in times of fiscal distress, it is hard for him to hear that the city council doesn’t have enough money when a large sum is going toward public art.

He said he thinks that the money could be allocated to more pressing issues facing the city, like homelessness.

Parker said she understands the council members’ concerns, but she hopes they’ll give the program time to make an impact.

“Since we haven’t really finished one project — we started with a pretty big one — I don’t blame them for thinking this isn’t working,” Parker said. “But I say that we should finish the one project and see what they think."