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.