Now that they’re done sending inappropriate emails during meetings, it looks like Ann Arbor City Council has finally gotten around to doing something useful. According to, the council approved preliminary changes to the Percent for Art Program that would require only half a percent of the funds designated for city developments and infrastructure be set aside for public art, as opposed to the full one percent the program is currently given. In a time when millions of dollars in budget cuts are necessary in Ann Arbor, this is a great step, and possibly even not going far enough. (And if an arts editor is saying this, you know it must be true.)

The public art fund will stand at a hefty $1.5 million at the end of the fiscal year, as it has been accumulating for some time. Surely this is enough money to last the city for a while. Protesters of the program change claim that now there won’t be enough money for public art. But if we’ve already let it accumulate this much without spending enough to counter its growth, then there’s not an urgent need to keep it expanding at the current rate. One percent of the development budget has clearly been more than enough.

Many arts enthusiasts vehemently argue that if cuts are to be made, they must be made elsewhere. But Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje is already proposing a three-percent pay cut for all city employees, so art is not the only part of budget from which bits and pieces are being chipped away.

But on a more pragmatic level, there just isn’t a need for more public art in Ann Arbor. We live in a town that’s pretty artsy as it is — the city bike racks even say “art” on them. Slowing development of future public art projects is a risk we can afford to take when compared to the idea of skimping on city infrastructure and density development. Plus, it doesn’t seem like we’re anywhere near using up the public art budget we already have.

So good work, council, but maybe you haven’t gone far enough. With that hefty wad of cash already set aside for beautifying our streets, why not just put a hold on the Percent for Art Program altogether? We don’t need more art right now. Those who claim the city will lose its reputation as an artsy town neglect the fact that first you need to actually have a functioning city with bridges that don’t collapse and buildings that aren’t falling apart. Once the budget is back on track and Ann Arbor’s infrastructure is repaired, we can reconsider the art program. But until then, it’s a finicky thing to fuss over.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the art projects the Council investigates are often absurd — and so are their price tags. City Council is considering spending $850,000 on a German artist’s concept for what looks like, in all fairness, a short column on a wet ramp near some trees. At least support a local artist if you’re going to commission a weird project like this, and find one willing to do it for a much lower price tag. If the city is going to spend so much money on a single, unexciting art piece, it’s no wonder people are saying the $1.5 million isn’t enough. The way we’re spending the money, it really won’t be enough. But the way we’re spending it is also just plain dumb.

But there is a right way to spend money on the arts, even in this economy, and it can be seen in my hometown of Washington, D.C. The National Endowment for the Arts distributes stimulus money to arts groups, and one of the criteria for acquiring money is to demonstrate that the failing economy had forced your organization to eliminate certain job opportunities. According to a story in the The Washington Post, the program is working. Promoting arts institutions in a way that keeps people employed is the best of both worlds. We keep our reputation of being focused on the arts, and we keep our residents employed. Given the choice between funding arts programs so they can keep providing jobs and erecting a wet, German pillar in front of City Hall, we should go with funding the programs.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *