Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Let me say right up front that I know that writing what I am will anger some and really anger others. It seems this topic is in many ways the equivalent of touching a New York City subway’s third rail. Yes, the topic is public art and the one percent for art ordinance that Chapel Hill approved back in March 2002.

The ordinance allocates 1% of selected capital projects for art, including creating it, installing it at the location of the project, and maintaining it. The money for ‘percent for art projects’ comes from each project's construction budget including funding that comes from all levels of government and from private support.

Let me say loudly and clearly that I like art. I like public art too. My problem is not with a program that helps us provide pleasing pieces of art in and around our public facilities; my problem is with the methodology. Why is this so important? Because the Chapel Hill Town Council is going to consider a contextual plan from the Chapel Hill Public Art Commission to raise one percent for art an additional percent.

There are some who have reservations about public art because they dislike the idea of “government” deciding what is and is not art and what is and is not worthy of the expenditure of public dollars. And who the selected artist is presents another can of worms. Since those who advocate for public art and try to build the necessary public consensus operate in the political sphere, it’s difficult to ignore what might or might not be politically motivated.

Others dislike expending public money on public art because there are so many other needs that should be given a higher priority. Note that, in the Chapel Hill approach, the money comes from the “contingency” budget for a project, not the operational budget. This means that the dollars for art can’t be used for other purposes, but since it typically comes from bonds, we still pay for it in the out years.

Another area of friction is where the public art is located. Some projects that the Arts Commission has implemented include the metal sculpture outside Fire Station 5, benches on East Franklin Street, murals at the Hargraves Center and a tile mosaic in the town building that houses the Inter-Faith Council shelter and kitchen. All of these seem great, but the public art for the new Town Operations center got to me.

One percent of that project meant $426,000 and I believed then and still believe that it is just too much money. Publicly expressing that point of view has generated various reactions.

One theme was that to say what I said implied that I didn’t believe the public employees working at the operations center were worthy of experiencing public art. In my opinion, this sort of false argument does us no good. What that argument attempts to do is divert us from the real issues, such as do we really need such expensive benches in front of the operations center. Regardless of which funding sources provided the money, we taxpayers still pay the bills.

Now we have moved forward on the Lot #5 project and the one percent formula produces an estimated $671,000 for public art. I’m sorry but this just seems like too much money to be mandated on one project.

I have talked to others who have concerns similar to mine and discussing this led me to believe that there might be another solution. Some cities like Seattle, Washington have a percent for art program but they implement it differently.

In their program, the money is deposited in a municipal art fund that is administered by their Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Art funds are “pooled” from one project to another and even from one fund source to another and not all of the money must be spent on the project that generated the dollars.

What’s appealing with this approach is that there might be projects that won’t generate much money for art based on the one percent of capital expenditure rule but whose location or other aspects might be worthy of a more costly art investment. To me, such pooling makes sense for us too.

Obviously, I am not an expert on this and I suspect that I’ll hear again from some program supporters. I suggest that they might use me as a litmus test. I value art, I value public art, and I am willing to support its funding. I also believe that the current and proposed formula is flawed in its straight-line approach. Probably many other citizens out there feel the same way so it might be a good thing to reexamine our approach before going to two percent.

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