Art and tax

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By Benjamin Weatherston

By Benjamin Weatherston

How much is enough public money for public art?

Story By Jennifer Conlin

Photos by Benjamin Weatherston

Two years ago this month, an estimated crowd of 100 gathered at a dedication ceremony in the plaza of the municipal center off Huron Street to hear Herbert Dreiseitl, an award-winning German artist and landscape architect, discuss the water feature flowing there.

“The sculpture tells a narrative about rainwater,” Dreiseitl said of the piece he had first proposed to the Public Art Commission and City Council in summer 2009.

A year earlier, Dreiseitl, who focuses on urban hydrology and the treatment of waste and stormwater, had been in Ann Arbor to speak at the Huron River Watershed Council’s annual conference. Soon after, he was asked by city officials to submit public art ideas that might fit in with the water collection and retention system of the municipal building already under construction.

Dreiseitl’s water features were already well known in the U.S., existing in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Portland, as well as internationally from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. “He seemed a perfect candidate because he had the experience and talent,” said Margaret Parker, who was then chairing Ann Arbor’s Public Art Commission.

“Rain is like a gift from the heavens that is all about the future and renewing the earth,” Dreiseitl said to the audience the evening of the dedication. Jutting from the plaza before him were the now-familiar rippled bronze castings that lean into one another in what is meant to depict openness to the sky. Rainwater collected from the Larcom City Hall and adjacent Justice Center roofs cascade down the sculpture’s surfaces after being pumped up from a 2,300-gallon reservoir. Blue glass spheres that penetrate the structure — energy-efficient LED lights — sparkled as he spoke. “Rain drops like pearls and penetrates the surface, glides down, collects and then flows down the stream,” he said of the structure and water path that leads to a rain garden. “The sculpture tells that whole story.”

By Benjamin Weatherston

By Benjamin Weatherston

These days, however, a larger, far less serene story exists about the water feature and about local public art in general.

Renowned today as the controversial first official project of a Percent for Art ordinance passed by City Council in 2007 — which allowed 1 percent of capital improvement dollars to be moved into a public art fund — the sculpture has become a source of friction between supporters and detractors of public art in the community.

Dreiseitl’s work was envisioned as a reflective, environmentally friendly space to contemplate water and art (albeit probably before or after paying a parking ticket or answering a court summons). Local artists were quick to applaud the water feature on AnnArbor.com.

Despite these accolades, that sculpture and another disputed public art project hanging in the Justice Center lobby — out of the view of much of the public — led to the overhaul this past spring of the city’s entire public art program.

In June, the City Council voted to eliminate the Percent for Art ordinance, which during its five-year tenure had raised $2.2 million from projects that included water, sewer, stormwater and parks capital improvements.

Almost $850,000 remains in the account after the Percent for Art program was killed. Even that is controversial.

“When I got involved with public art here it was because I saw how it can make a community more beautiful and economically vibrant,” said Bob Miller, who moved to Ann Arbor five years ago and is now the Public Art Commission chairman. “I had no idea this was such a political issue.”

By Benjamin Weatherston

By Benjamin Weatherston

Councilmember Stephen Kunselman, who was a vocal opponent of the Percent for Art program, said, “I plan to run for mayor next year on this issue, among others. I think the public art ordinance was a cheating of the public’s trust.”

Well documented by now in the local media and hotly debated in the comments section of one area website, many Ann Arbor residents and some councilmembers voiced a litany of complaints about the fountain: the cost of the structure ($750,000 to the city); the commission choice (a non-Michigan artist); its functionality (the original water pipes required replacement due to clogging); its design (during a drought no water flows); and its value to residents. Commented one Ann Arborite on a website, “This was a colossal waste of taxpayer funds … essential services are being sliced while the city government authorizes this monstrosity of artwork.”

Aaron Seagraves, Ann Arbor’s part-time public art administrator, has repeatedly addressed the fountain’s critics. “Less than 20 percent of the money budgeted went to Dreiseitl in the end,” he said, adding that Future Group (formerly Future Fence) from Warren, Mich., was the main contractor on the project; the lighting and water technology was subcontracted to CAE from Hamburg, Mich.; and the bronze came from Clarkston Fine Arts Center in Clarkston, Mich. The casting was subcontracted to Wolverine Bronze in Warren, Mich.

“It was fabricated in Michigan,” he explained, adding that no Michigan artist had the experience in urban hydrology necessary to design around the stormwater issues that were already in place. “Besides, we are legally not allowed to only solicit proposals from Michigan artists,” he said, citing nondiscrimination laws.

As for the structural problems with the project, he admitted some things needed replacing and mentioned that a railing was recently installed to address concerns that observers might slip into the water.

However, two years after its dedication, a plaque describing the project and its environmental design has still not been posted. Seagraves says it has finally come in and should be up this month, something Bob Miller was happy to hear at the monthly Public Art Commission meeting. “It might better explain to the public why that piece was chosen for the space,” he said.

By Benjamin Weatherston

By Benjamin Weatherston

One could argue that an even more helpful plaque would be one that explains what public art actually is and what the city hopes to achieve through its program.

The “pro” side of public art is represented by organizations like the Public Art Network, a national program for Americans for the Arts, which claims “cities gain value through public art — cultural, social and economic.” They cite how public art makes places memorable, from the St. Louis Arch to the Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. They also emphasize that public art is accessible to all and “humanizes” the built environment.

On the “anti” side are everyone who thinks public art is a luxury taxpayers can’t afford.

(It’s worth mentioning here that the city’s public art debate has nothing to do with the University of Michigan’s many artistic offerings, such as the orange steel Mark di Suvero sculpture that towers over students like a giant stick figure in front of the Museum of Art.)

Supporters of the city’s Percent for Art program believe the Dreiseitl project and the funding mechanism behind it confronted birthing problems that any new municipal program might face. But they also wonder if the public failed to understand or embrace the value of what they were trying to do — something they hope to change through better education. “I think it’s really hard for us to explain to the public a service that doesn’t involve picking up garbage,” Seagraves lamented.

The history of public art in Ann Arbor dates back to the 1998 founding of the Commission for Art in Public Places, now the Public Art Commission. Its mission: “To bring to the city of Ann Arbor public art that improves the aesthetic quality of public spaces and structures, provides for cultural and recreational opportunities, contributes to the local heritage, stimulates economic activity and promotes the general welfare of the community.”

Margaret Parker, a local artist who chaired CAP and, eventually, the Public Art Commission, said the original panel was made up primarily of downtown business owners (she and her husband, Mark Hodesh, own Downtown Home and Garden and are part owners of Bill’s Beer Garden) and was formed to create a mechanism for selecting public art for buildings.

She recalls their first project was fundraising for the parking structure that was going up at Fourth and Washington Street. “Another commission member took charge and privately raised $80,000 for the three works of art located there now,” she said, citing the large-scale mosaic on the eastern side of the structure, the ceramic tile on the pedestrian walkway and the three steel sculptural panels that replaced guardrails on the upper levels.

“Next was the water tower,” she remembers.

After being approached by the water department to raise money to decorate the Plymouth Road water tower, Parker and the commission set to work, first asking the public for ideas — some 500 came in and were exhibited publicly — and then asking private donors for the $30,000 needed to paint the tower.

“Inevitably they would always ask, ‘Why isn’t the city paying for this if it is a city water tower?’” Though Parker succeeded in raising the private money, the city ended up matching those funds when the costs of painting the tower increased. In 2007 it was painted with a mural of puffy clouds and sky that still hover cheerfully over the town, proclaiming the city’s name.

Soon after, CAP and some city officials began to look at how other similarly sized cities raised funds for public art. Parker noticed that several cities had a “percent for art” program. According to the Public Art Network, 287 cities in the U.S. currently have a percent for art program, including Toledo and several big university towns such as Bloomington, Ind., Austin, Texas, and Evanston, Ill. However, when the Ann Arbor City Council unanimously passed the Percent for Art ordinance in November 2007, it was the first of its kind in Michigan and, until its demise last spring, the only such program in the state.

The ordinance required a city administrator to support the nine-member Public Art Commission and to link with the city on projects. It stipulated that public art had to be “thematically” related to the source of the funds — hence a fountain that recycles stormwater when the money is coming from that utility fund. And that the 1 percent from any one fund had to be capped at $250,000 (in the case of the Dreiseitl fountain, money came from different funds and was pooled to pay for the $750,000 water feature).

“We were just getting started and had the city hall project before us when the recession happened and we all nose-dived together,” recalls Parker, explaining that they ended up hiring only a half-time administrator and that they were given the plans for a city hall public art space that already had many stipulations and regulations because the building’s design was nearly complete.

Besides the fountain, the Percent for Art program funded the hanging sculpture in the lobby of the Justice Center created by Ed Carpenter, an American artist who was inspired by the ripples in a pond; a mosaic-style mural on the shelter in Allmendinger Park by local artist Mary Thiefels; and two orange steel “trees” erected in West Park near the bandshell stage by Traven Pelletier from Dexter. “So actually, half the artists we commissioned were from Michigan,” Seagraves said.

All the while, the Percent for Art ordinance had more than a few detractors, including Kunselman and Jane Lumm on the City Council.

Kunselman started arguing in 2010 that channeling restricted funds to the Percent for Art program was illegal. He still believes that. The funds are being taken from dedicated millage accounts, paid by taxpayers, which could help fix up the city’s parks and streets, he says.

“I asked the city attorney for a written opinion on the issue, as the city has a public trust problem about this,” said Kunselman. He said he never got that opinion. “When you’re putting up a hanging mobile in the Justice Center with money needed to buy furniture, what should the priority be? I support public art but on top of it, this ordinance restricted creativity because of its theme-based art requirement.”

Lumm, like Kunselman, said she’s not against public art but rather the Percent for Art funding mechanism. “Until we are adequately funding core infrastructure and as long as there are unfunded capital needs in areas like sewers, parks, etc. — which there are — we should not be diverting funds designated specifically to meet those needs to pay for public art.”

Mayor John Hieftje and the other councilmembers, including Christopher Taylor, say the 2007 ordinance explicitly allowed for 1 percent of the budget on all city capital improvement projects to be spent on public art, and that it has nothing to do with diverting millage funds.

“It’s simply part of the capital resources for that project and not being transferred from any millage,” Taylor explained. “I think the Percent for Art program ended up being harangued and tarnished improperly. Public art is critical to place-making and we need to continue to care about it.”

Many don’t. In November 2012, voters rejected a citywide public art millage that would have replaced Percent for Art and raised $459,273 over four years. Proponents said that would have cost the average property owner less than $1 a month.

After that vote, the City Council suspended the Percent for Art program, saying it wanted to study the issue.

Then, in June, the council officially killed the 1 percent program, replacing it with a more generic and malleable ordinance: “Funding for public art may come from private donations of cash or collateral (specific objects of art), crowdfunding for specific art projects, as part of a capital improvement project specifically designated as an enhanced project, or other funds that City Council may appropriate.”

The intent is to “bake” public art funded by the city into specific projects, making it part of the original design — like decorative balustrades on bridges. There’s no set percentage attached. In other words, there should be no more scenarios like a taxpayer-funded fountain being added after a building has already been designed if the new program works.

Connie Brown, a designer and architect who also serves on the Public Art Commission, knows the challenges of working with the city on construction projects. “City processes, in general, are procedural nightmares,” she said. “There were a lot of restrictions with the old art ordinance, so hopefully now we can really try to integrate design into the building improvements that will work better and inspire more creativity.”

Taylor agrees, but only if the city is committed to spending money on public art. “It might complement the design from conception more than it has in the past. But you still have to make it a priority.”

Then there’s Parker, who stepped down from the commission more than a year ago. She’s worried about the new ordinance: “That was our goal (with Percent for Art), too. We wanted to be let in on projects from the very beginning, but it takes time for a city to understand that bringing the commissioners in on a future five-year plan benefits everyone when it comes to public art. What I worry about now is that with no clear funding process in place, it will be hard to know who in city government can really make something happen on a project when it comes to public art.”

Rizzolo admits that’s a concern. “If public art is a line item, it is hard to see how it might not be the first thing to go if a project is over budget. But if it is part of the master plan from the beginning it should have a better chance of staying in.”

Liesel Fenner is the public art program manager at Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. “I have sort of been tracking Ann Arbor and was saddened to hear they got rid of the Percent for Art program,” she said. “Public art is an integral component of public space and creating experiences. It complements the design of new projects.”

But, she added, “every city has a different structure for public art and their own unique situation.” Some municipalities force public art regulations on real estate developers, she said, while others simply seek out private donors.

“What is critical,” she added, “is to have an administrator with the city or an art commissioner to put things forward to the community and be privy to the development taking place.”

Seagraves still works for the city as a part-time public art administrator, though he took no pay in August as his contract had ended and he was waiting to see if the council would approve a new one. He eventually got that new contract, through December, but the whole process was “disheartening,” said Miller.

So, what will become of that $845,000 in uncommitted public art funds from the old Percent to Art ordinance?

Lumm wanted to return the money to various city funds. “For me, this is about priorities and timing,” she said. “Resources are scarce these days.”

She lost that battle, however, as the council agreed to leave the money with the Public Art Commission. Several public art projects are in development, and some have already received approval for funding. Included are the Argo Cascades project, where two finalists are currently drafting proposals for art near the Huron River; a rain garden by a Colorado artist at West Kingsley and North First that will feature silhouettes of fish swimming through a riverbed; and the East Stadium bridges, which will feature a design by a Massachusetts-based artist featuring trees etched on stone and glass panels.

“What we want to do as a commission is to advise and educate the council on how to best spend this money,” said Miller. “Our biggest issue is there are now more deciders out there as public art will now be an optional choice on every project.”

Part of the commission’s new strategy is to bring the public in on the process as much as possible. They recently posted a survey on A2 Open City Hall asking residents their opinion on the Argo Cascades project. They also invited the public to meet the artists in August.

And the Ann Arbor Community Foundation recently established two funds in support of commission projects: the Jewett Memorial Chair, a replica of the Adirondack chairs designed by Coleman Jewett, who for 45 years sold his hand-crafted pine furniture at the farmers’ market, where the chair will be erected; and Canoe Art, which are artistic displays of recycled canoes that will be installed around the city.

“What we really need here is a public art master plan,” said Deb Polich, executive director of the Arts Alliance, a nonprofit umbrella support group for arts and cultural organizations in Washtenaw County.

“We know that this community has a high interest in arts and culture and values design,” she said, citing a survey of 1,535 Washtenaw County residents that showed 63 percent feel arts and culture are “very important” in their community. “I know public art is imperfect to some but we should want to be recognized locally, regionally, nationally and internationally as being the kind of community that has a sense of place. What’s more, it gives people another reason to visit.”


What is public art?

Public art is art in public, used by the public. There are “long-term” works, such as fountains, memorials and sculptures; “temporary” works, like pop-up installations, events and environmental art that purposely breaks down over time; “integrated” works, like benches, railings, stairs and surface treatments; and “design team” art, where artists are engaged in the initial stages of a team project. Traditionally, public art is funded in three ways: by the public; through a public-private model; or private funding alone.



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1 Comment

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    Martha Knott-Vinyer

    November 19, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Your readers might be interested in visiting Water Street, in Ypsilanti, which thrives because of no municipal funding.