Where Has All The Art Gone?

Pete Seeger died last week. Today the Toledo Public Television station was kind enough to air an American Masters program about Seeger from a few years ago. There was an interview with his son, who said his father had never aimed to commercialize folk music – he used it to build community.

Community is still something people seek, even in this age where you can watch movies and meetings and concerts and sports events on your smartphone. In the rapid evolution of new apartment buildings in Ann Arbor, developers have found that the students and others who inhabit these new buildings are more interested in communal spaces than they are in large living spaces. The first “private dorms,” Landmark and Zaragon in the South University area, have mainly 4,5, and 6-bedroom apartments with relatively large central areas within the apartments. The newer buildings, Zaragon West, Varsity, and the non-student Ann Arbor City Apartments all have smaller apartments, mostly one and two-bedrooms, with some studios, but have gone all-out with rooftop party rooms and even a “Zen Garden.”

People want to be with people in an organized way.

It’s a concept many of our public servants fail to understand. What brings people together? Big sporting events, for certain, as we know from the success of the recent Winter Classic. But hordes of people do not necessarily make a community, and sporting events can polarize rather than energize. One message from Pete Seeger is that art and music build community in a sustainable way and a way that fosters common bonds instead of emphasizing differences. That’s why it is such a mistake to forego the opportunity to promote public art.

There is plenty of art around if you are wealthy enough to own paintings and sculpture and if you were raised in a culture that made you appreciate museums and concerts. But public art is a way to bring the arts to everyone and to make everyone feel a part of it. In 1983, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Miami Beach with what sounded like a bizarre and even goofy idea. The result was “Surrounded Islands”:  tiny islands in the intra-coastal waterway between Miami and Miami Beach surrounded by thousands of yards of pink polyester fabric.Christo

Everyone got involved. Just placing the pink material took hundreds of volunteers. The artists had to work with government and local arts organizations to make everything work (it took a couple of years). My brother was one of the lawyers who helped import the pink polyester. My neighbors on one of the causeways that joins the beach to the mainland used their boat to help. People talked about it for years and I’m sure it was a factor that led to renewed interest in the Art Deco preservation movement on what was then a very dilapidated Miami Beach hotel strip.

As I have written about previously, Ann Arbor had an innovative, progressive Percent for Art program that used 1% of budgeted money from otherwise un-artistic capital projects to fund public artworks. But thanks to some councilmembers who think Ann Arbor should be ordinary rather than innovative, the Percent for Art program is dead. Not content to have killed it, one of those councilmembers, Jane Lumm, has now proposed that money in the public art fund – from those projects that have already been successfully built without that 1% of their budgets set aside for art – be “returned” to sewer, water, and roads funds. That would effectively eviscerate the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which is just what Lumm and her cohort want.

These councilmembers would rather see money spent on potholes and police, even though the road millage taxes pay for street improvements and there is so little crime that the police already spend more than 40% of their time on non-crime, “pro-active” activities. Perhaps it would be wise to pipe in a little Pete Seeger music into the Council Chambers in the hope it might instill a sense of community. Nothing else seems to work.


The War on Art

The pumpkins are just about to get smashed and dumped into the recycling bins with the leaves, so we can now all start thinking about Thanksgiving and those Puritans. They left quite a legacy, particularly here in Ann Arbor, where the city council discussions have been about decency, bad words, and protection of women. These moral considerations forced the council to vote twice on the same nomination of the same person. They must have forgotten that the Puritans were against wasting time.

Puritans were also quite disturbed by graven images and so, it seems, are some of the councilmembers. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, they have declared a war on art.

In 2007, the city council unanimously passed the Percent for Art Ordinance, a piece of legislation that the Commission on Art in Public Places (now called the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission or AAPAC) began developing around the turn of the century. Although I always like to point out how innovative our city is, this was not an innovation but had been successfully implemented in many cities, including Philadelphia, which started it all in 1959. New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Chapel Hill all have percent-for-art programs. Chapel Hill, a college town half our size, even has a Public and Cultural Arts Office.IMAG1228

Renovation of City Hall benefited from the art program when a completely uninteresting façade was replaced with an educational and functional stormwater installation and fountain designed by world-renowned artist Herbert Dreiseitl. It includes usable outdoor space and decorative plantings that change with every season.

The Puritans have spread a lot of misinformation about Percent for Art, so here is how it really works:  Whenever there is a capital improvement project, such as a bridge, water main, or street repaving, that project always has a 10% contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses. The Percent for Art is 1% of that contingency fund. It is not an extra amount added to a project, so it doesn’t make the project any more expensive. Each project is capped at $250,000 and none of the art funds come from the city’s General Fund, the money used to pay police and firefighters.

We don’t have a Percent for Art ordinance anymore. Misinformation works. First, 3rd Ward Councilmember Stephen Kunselman started talking about how the ordinance was illegal. He kept talking, even though he lacked support from anyone who was actually schooled in law. Then some misinformed people started to criticize the Dreiseitl sculpture, mistakenly saying that it was taking money away from police and fire services, and xenophobically saying that Dreiseitl was not from Michigan or even from America.

The fact that some people don’t “like” the Dreiseitl art or any of the other public art is beside the point. Public art is not there to lull people SUB-CZECH-articleInlineinto serenity with gentle colors and Norman Rockwell images of kids in barber chairs. It is meant to make you think and react, whether you “like” it or not. This concept might be best expressed by Czech sculptor David Cerny, whose installation in the Vltava River points towards the Prague Castle.

Art is part of culture and culture is what makes a city unique. If Ann Arbor had a cadre of gazillionnaires, the way Grand Rapids does, we could count on private funding for large, outdoor art installations. We do have the University of Michigan, and more collaboration between the U and the city could produce some contributions to public art, but that has not yet been a priority for either institution.

Politics is hard and you have to choose your battles. Art is not very popular when times are tough, so the council chose to throw art under the bus, which took the form of a ballot proposal that would fund art with a millage – coming out of citizens’ pockets – rather than a percent of capital projects. The council did not consult the arts community before proposing this millage and there was little time to mount a campaign in support. It doesn’t take much to mount a campaign against spending your money, so, not too surprisingly, recession-strapped voters last year voted against taxing themselves for art.

This vote gave the council an easy, but not necessarily correct, way to say that “the people” don’t want money spent on art. This past summer they got rid of Percent for Art completely, and replaced it with an ordinance that says, essentially, that art might happen in an appropriate project if someone adds it into the project cost and then gets tied to some railroad track until the council says the art is worth it. The possibility of art being included in any new city project is slim.

Councilmember Jane Lumm, from Ward 2, has declared herself to be against public art in any circumstance. She and 1st Ward Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy proposed gutting what was left of the public art fund, but their proposal was defeated. AAPAC still has about $800,000 from the old Percent for Art to spend on art projects, and they are giving thanks for that.