If you’ve ever admired a beautiful mosaic or mural in New York City, there’s a chance you have the Percent for Art Program (PCA) to thank. It mandates that one percent of the budget for city-funded construction projects go to public art. The law enacting it was passed in 1982 as part of a larger public art movement sweeping the country, in which many U.S. cities adopted their own PCA policies. Since then, 300 public artworks have been installed in New York, though not all cities have had the same success.
According to a recent report in The Art Newspaper, cities including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Buffalo have let their PCAs fall by the wayside thanks to funding issues and plain old ignorance that the programs even exist. “It’s really a question of making people aware that this law is on the books,” Tom Chestnut, a member of the largely volunteer-based Buffalo Arts Commission, told the paper.
But it can be challenging for some to think about art when city leaders are struggling with the basics. For instance, in 2010, the EPA slapped Buffalo with a compliance order to fix its storm water system, which was polluting the Niagara River. Responding to that order, the city just announced a $380 million plan to improve the system, which includes the $41 million upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant (built in 1938). It’s a lot of money, considering the economic downturn has forced cities to tighten their belts, and 30% of Buffalo’s residents now live below the poverty line. Though there are signs that the city’s economy is beginning to improve, it still has a long way to go.
Given its economic troubles, some might find Buffalo’s recent inattention to public art justified, but according to others, art might be exactly what the city needs. As Dan Rosenfeld explained in a 2012 CityLab article, “Investments in public art are not just for cultural or aesthetic purposes; they also can have a positive bottom-line economic impact, with material financial benefits to their owners. Good art is good business.” Creating a beautiful city that draws new residents and business may be just as important for the city’s long-term health and ability to flourish as being able to flush your toilet.
Buffalo committed itself to reviving its Art in Public Places program this past April, and the Buffalo Arts Commission has successfully lobbied the city to allocate between $20,000 and $70,000 for public art in five new developments. If it stays true to its renewed commitment to allocate one percent of funds for capital projects to public art, it could also mean that the upcoming wastewater treatment plant upgrade will come with a new $410,000 artwork. (The city did not respond to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment as to whether the project will qualify.)
Hopefully, other cities will follow suit.