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Economic hurdles plague public art

Friday, November 19, 2010 | 11:14 a.m. CST

VAIL, Colo. — Public art has become a tough sell in communities where the rough economy has forced cuts in employment and services — even when those artistic endeavors were paid for in better times.

Officials in the posh mountain resort of Vail recently decided to shell out an extra $95,000 to move a statue installation out of storage — only after assuring residents that the money comes from a fund that can't be used for basic services.

And officials in Cheyenne, Wyo., voted against using money they already set aside for a 4-foot bronze statue for a park, calling the timing "atrocious" because the city has laid off 20 workers.

National arts advocates say similar debates are playing out in towns rich and poor, cities in Kansas and California among them, as officials mull how to maintain public art projects started during rosy economic times.

In Columbia, the Percent for Art program, started in 1997, sets aside 1 percent of the cost of certain capital improvement projects for the creation of public art at the site. Ten projects have been completed, and six more are planned or in progress.

Nationally, public officials are finding it politically difficult to direct dwindling revenues to art when it could be used for other things.

"When it's just sitting there, it's a pot of money, susceptible to being used as a cost-saving measure," said Robert L. Lynch, president of the Washington-based group Americans for the Arts.

Lynch said public art funding at all levels of government has gone up over the last 50 years, though public support usually falls when the economy does. Towns that resist arts cuts, he said, do so by arguing that public art helps promote the town.

That argument won out in tourist-dependent Vail.

"Public art is an appropriate expenditure of money," said Vail councilwoman Margaret Rogers, who joined the majority this week in voting to move the outdoor sculpture installation by National Medal of the Arts winner Jesus Moroles.

Rogers was careful to point out that the resort already set aside $160,000 to move the piece to a new home in a town park, and that the extra $95,000 comes from a designated fund that can be used only for recreation and the arts, not infrastructure or hiring. Talking about the art installation, Rogers said, "It doesn't do anybody any good in storage."

Still, some residents questioned the spending.

Jim Lamont, head of the powerful Vail Homeowners' Association, said Vail should consider selling the Moroles piece, which was installed in a city plaza in 1999 but taken down and moved to storage six years later because citizens didn't like it.

"We're proposing to spend a quarter of a million dollars moving a piece of art," Lamont told the council. "There are those who believe the piece of art should be put up for sale."

Similar concerns were aired this week in Cheyenne, where a city finance committee voted against recommending buying a $20,000 statue of a rabbit — even though the money was already set aside and can't be used toward rehiring laid-off staff.

"Spending $20,000 on a bronze in the same year we laid off 20 people — the timing is just atrocious," councilman Don Pierson said at the meeting, according to an account in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

In Overland Park, Kan., city officials have decided to halt a 2-year-old fund to help cover public art installations.

"Maintaining essential city services is the priority," said Overland Park spokesman Sean Reilly.

In San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders has suggested stopping a 2004 requirement that a portion of the money spent on capital projects be set aside for public art.

"There's truly a value in public art, but there's simply no money, and if you have choose between public art or police and fire, it's a pretty easy decision," said Sanders' spokesman, Alex Roth.

Arts advocates say the urge to cuts arts funding is natural for governments facing dwindling tax revenue — but this recession hasn't been as hard on public funding as previous downturns.

"One people have art in public spaces, they tend to like it and want to keep it," Lynch said.

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