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Public art, public process, public debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2010 - One penny on the dollar may not sound like much, but if a bill in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen wins approval, it could pay big dividends for those who love public art.

Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, wants 1 percent of the money spent on capital improvement projects in the city to be set aside in a public art trust fund, to be spent on projects not only in high-profile areas of the city like downtown or the Central West End but in neighborhoods and areas where the arts may not have been a top priority before.

Because the money would not be an additional tax, just a redirection of money already allocated for such projects, French says the benefits would far outweigh any objections. "There is only an upside to this thing," he says. "There is no downside to it. It's good public policy."

Maybe so. But when he tried to pass a similar bill in the last aldermanic session, it died in committee. He hopes that changes made this time around -- the latest version exempts projects that receive tax-increment financing or tax abatement -- will help move the concept along, and he expects that after aldermen deal with job one, the budget, they will move on to the public art bill.

Count Alderman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, as one of the skeptics. She says she favors the concept of setting aside money for public art, but she just isn't sure whether this is the best time for the city to start doing so.

"We just have to work through how this will work, and work through the timing," she said. "We're in the worst recession we've had in a long time. The timing is very, very difficult, with building permits down by a huge percentage."

She welcomed the exclusion of TIF project from the set-aside requirement. "One percent doesn't sound like much," Krewson said, "but when you're giving a TIF, that means the city is paying that 1 percent."

So far, Mayor Francis Slay is being noncommittal. In the last session, representatives of his office expressed concerns over the possible effects that setting aside money for public art may have on development. This time around, spokeswoman Kara Bowlin says, the mayor has been too focused on the budget to sit down and examine the bill for any possible unintended consequences.

That stance doesn't indicate he is any more or less favorably disposed this session than he was last, Bowlin said. "We're essentially looking at it as two different bills," she said in an email. "The mayor was against the last version, but that doesn't necessarily mean he is against this version."

French says he has enough co-sponsors for the bill, including Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, that he isn't too concerned about where Slay finally ends up.

"I'm not interested in the mayor's position," he said. "I'm interested in the 15 votes we need to get this through the board."


Setting aside a small percentage of the cost of capital improvement projects to spend on public art is far from a new idea. Hundreds of communities around the country, including Columbia and Kansas City in Missouri, have been doing it for years, with the amount varying from 1 to 3 percent.

"St. Louis is behind the curve on this," said Roseann Weiss of the Regional Arts Commission. Under French's bill, the commission would administer money in the public art trust fund, with its budget to be approved each year by the Board of Aldermen.

But the success of a major art project downtown means the time is right for St. Louis to join the crowd, she said.

"I do think there is a tremendous amount of interest in public art right now," Weiss said. "I think Citygarden has had a lot to do with people's understanding about creating a space for people to gather.

"Nobody is going to have a Citygarden in their neighborhood, but they might have a mural or a spot where an artist can design park benches. It's an opportunity to create a fund and see what we can do with it."

Weiss said that different cities administer their programs in different ways, but a key component in all of them is to make sure the public has a say in where and what public art will be.

"This is not about having somebody plop something down in your neighborhood that you had no role in choosing," she said. "It's a real public process about how art can be chosen.

"Public art is a focus. It is really one of those things that can create a dynamic meeting space and give a vitality to an area or a region. There are lots of reasons for public art. It can be a mural or a sidewalk or gates, a fence, a garden that includes sculpture. The imagination of artists is limitless. There are so many ways to do this."

Between Citygarden downtown and Laumeier Sculpture Park in south St. Louis County, Weiss said, local residents have seen what public art can do, and they have been able to learn more about art in general. Now, she said, it's time to spread that appreciation and that knowledge more widely.

"A lot of aldermen are looking around and saying, 'This is a really great thing. This is the future. This could really be a catalyst for revitalizing my neighborhood.' "


Public art has been well established and well accepted in Columbia, Mo. Since it was approved by the City Council in 1997, Columbia's Percent for Art program has completed eight projects and has four more in progress, costing nearly $757,000.

The projects have ranged from a tile and neon light mural in a parking garage to sculptures in an aquatic center to prints and digital collages at the health department to glass integrated into several large windows at a fire station.

Marie Hunter, manager of the city's office of cultural affairs, said the seed for the program was planted with Columbia officials who attended a meeting in Phoenix and were impressed by the active public art program there. The city passed its ordinance shortly thereafter, setting aside 1 percent of the cost of eligible above-ground capital improvement projects that have a budget of $1 million or more.

Hunter said that a key element of the law is that word "eligible."

"It doesn't mean that every single project gets 1 percent taken off for public art," she explained. "They have to be designated by the City Council as Percent for Art projects."

Projects that don't get such a designation may have particularly tight budgets, she said, or they may have sources of funding that are restricted in how they may be used. Also, she said, the city wants to be sure that art projects are accessible to the public, and not all public improvements fall into that category.

"The art is dealt with in the same way as any other aspect of a building project," Hunter said. "We aren't budgeting on top of it for the art work, and it's not a separate tax, nothing we're adding on. It's simply accounting for an art component within that project."

When the 1 percent is set aside, Hunter said, the city sends out a request for qualifications, seeking information from artists who might be interested. The artists are treated like architects, in the sense that they should be in on the project as early as possible, to learn about the site and the community. Some of the funded artists have been from Columbia, others have come in from elsewhere, including St. Louis.

Another important aspect of the program is the involvement of citizen committees, made up of volunteers with interest and expertise in the arts, that work with those more directly involved in the planning of the project.

By reaching out, Hunter said, Columbia has tried to make sure that public art is not only paid for by money for public improvements but also has been selected with the public's sensitivities in mind.

Not that everyone will be pleased with every project, she added. But with art that is always open to view, public reviews are a crucial element.

"Public art is very unique," Hunter said. "It tends to evoke strong opinions in people, whether or not they pay attention to art otherwise. There is always this issue of community accessibility, but with any art project, you cannot go into it expecting that you are going to be commissioning works that are universally accepted.

"There are all kinds of reasons people love or object to a work of art. What your goal has to be is providing an art opportunity that people may not have otherwise, giving them the chance to think and wonder and form opinions. Those opinions may vary, but it is that act of looking and thinking and becoming more aware of your surroundings that matters most."