Louisiana, like many states and municipalities in the US, has had a “Percent for Art” law on the books for years. But now, amid fears about excessive public spending, Republican state representative Bob Hensgens has introduced a bill — approved last week in the Louisiana House by a vote of 86 to 4 and currently being considered by the State Senate’s finance committee — that would limit the sum that can be spent on public art as part of state renovation and construction projects to $450,000.
Under the current terms of Louisiana’s Percent for Art law, any public construction or renovation project with a budget of $2 million or more must set aside 1% of its funding for “the acquisition, installation, restoration, or conservation of works of art in, on, or on the grounds.” In other words, a public construction or renovation project would have to received more than $45 million in state funding for its mandated public art budget to exceed $450,000 — a threshold that is very rarely breached. In fact, as the Times-Picayune‘s Julia O’Donoghue reported, since the Percent for Art law went into effect in 2001, only four of Louisiana’s 142 construction projects with public art budgets have exceeded $450,000. One of them in particular, however, seems to have caught the attention of Louisiana Republicans and spurred Hensgens’s House Bill 216 into existence.
The $1.2 billion Tulane University Medical Center opened in New Orleans last summer. Its public art budget of $2.4 million was put toward the acquisition of, among other works, a $350,000 glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, and the commissioning of “River Spirit” (2015), a hanging sculpture by Philadelphia-based artist Ray King, for $750,000. The latter would be in violation of House Bill 216 in its current form; both would be well over the $100,000 cap Hensgens sought in the first version of his bill.
“In 2015, the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism spent $350,000 of your taxpayer dollars on this sculpture for the University Medical Center, the new Charity Hospital in New Orleans,” Louisiana State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy, a Republican running for the US Senate, wrote on Facebook last month. “It was designed by artist Dale Chihuly of Tacoma, Washington. It is a very nice sculpture, and a totally inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars when we are supposed to be broke.”
On his Facebook page, Hensgens echoed Kennedy’s comments, writing: “New hospital in New Orleans will cost $200,000,000. That’s 2 million in art. How many TOPS scholarships is that? Look, I like art but Chilhully is a symbol of wealth and we are not wealthy.”
However, as O’Donoghue points out in her article, the money used to buy and commission public art is part of the state’s capital budget, and therefore could not be redirected to cover other expenses or help to repay Louisiana’s $943 million budget deficit. Furthermore, the Percent for Art law is sporadically enforced. While the state should have spent $14.1 million on public art since 2001, according to the Louisiana Division of Administration, it has only spent about $3.5 million to date.
In addition to wanting to reduce Percent for Art spending, Kennedy and Hensgens have both criticized the public art expenditures at the Tulane University Medical Center for benefitting two out-of-state artists. “We are trying to get language [to] make sure we go with Louisiana artist[s] 1st as well as a reasonable cap,” Hensgens wrote last month. However, House Bill 216 does nothing to change this; in fact, to restrict consideration for such public art projects to Louisiana artists would be unconstitutional, as O’Donoghue notes.
If approved by the state Senate, House Bill 216 will go into effect on August 1.