A detail of “Shimmering Echoes” by Seattle artist Koryn Rolstad that was unveiled at the Suwanee City Hall. (photo by Jason Getz for AJC.com)

The town government of Suwanee, Georgia put their money where their mouth is. In 2007, the suburb of Atlanta approved an ordinance which would ask all real estate developers to donate 1% of the budget of the building cost toward a public art project.

This is a rendering of Koryn Rolstad’s Shimmering Echoes sculpture to be installed at City Hall. (via Suwanee.com)

Not wanting to appear hypocritical, the town dedicated 1% of the $7,800,000 budget for the new City Hall building to an art installation by Seattle artist Koryn Rolstad, titled  “Shimmering Echoes,” which plays on railroad ties (a nod to the trains that still run through town) and was dedicated on March 25th.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution writes:

Where many struggling cities see public art as an extravagance these days, Suwanee, on firmer ground financially, sees it as a key to a prosperous future.

It sounds like a refreshing idea, doesn’t it?

The 1% ordinance is not a mandate but rather a guideline. The law stipulates that developers simply meet with the public arts commission to discuss the possibility of dedicating a portion of their budget. They aren’t actually required to do so. Still, residents of the town express consternation over the ordinance. “How can you ask businesses to spend 1 percent on art when they’re having to lay people off?” wondered Suwanee resident Maurice Cook.

Some people would consider dedicating any portion of a construction budget to public art a frivolity unfit for the lean economic times our country currently faces. The Suwanee town government can’t abide by forcing anyone to spend money on art, so they’re essentially suggesting it’s a good idea. Maurice Cook argues that spending money on art essentially takes food off the plates of hard-working citizens.

Other Locales

Lots of cities dedicate 1% their annual budget to public arts. Some cities like Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, and San Jose have gone to 1.5%. Tampa requires that private land developers spend 1% of their project budgets on either public arts or on a donation to an art organization. The concept of government funding for the arts is not revolutionary but in economic times such as these expenditures on arts draw serious fire from taxpayers and these art projects are the first things to get cut from the budget along with funding for school art programs.

The city of Richmond, VA is threatening to cut its art budget in half. When questioned a city official responded, “This was a tough decision. Do you unfreeze Medicaid waivers [or fund the arts]?”  Unfortunately where budgets are concerned it’s a zero sum game.

This contrasts starkly with the European model of arts funding. In Europe, government expenditure can compromise up to as much as 50% of a country’s GDP, so officials aren’t asked to make as many sacrifices when it comes to deciding what to spend money on.

Those who support government funding of the arts argue that art makes life better because it contributes to the overall well being of a community. But why? And how? That argument reminds me of when some well-meaning math professor would try to describe discrete algebra in “real-life” terms. I didn’t buy it. How could it possibly apply to me and WHY did I have to pass this class to get an art degree? However, the dude next to me in that same math class who dreamed of a future career in economics lived for those equations just as I looked forward to my 8 am art history survey course. Many times when math and art are discussed as abstractions, they can prove frustrating to the public that doesn’t quite understand what they are supporting. However as much as higher math and art have in common in terms of their love of abstractions, you’d never see the math department lose it’s funding in hard economic times.

The bigger question is: how can the art world get buy-in from the entire community?

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Liz Hall

Liz Hall lives in Boston and her work appears in the Big RED & Shiny and on the Artists in Context blog. She...

12 replies on “1% for the Arts: A Hollow Gesture?”

  1. Even if I were to agree that art should be involuntarily funded, I would question whether the mandate should be budget-based — seems like you could end up with a lot of bad, needlessly expensive art with a fixed minimum. Shouldn’t there be some other guideline, like size or context?

  2. The general public doesn’t realize that public artists hire workers from their community:
    fabricators, laborers, shippers, insurance agents, masons, electricians, equipment rentals and more.

    All of these costs come out of that now much diminished 1% leaving the artist with not much in the way of profit.

  3. This 1% (now less) could be applied to public arts funding to develop a pool of funds at the State level. That budget could then be designated to a small department that could encourage local/international artists to submit proposals for a public art project, and then could employ a curator, or a panel of judges, or host a town hall meeting (whatever).

    The use of a tertiary party’s judgement in terms of how these public funds could be applied to a public art project would demonstrate a level of conceptual rigor and intellectual streamlining that would be absent if every real estate developer was required to do a public art project on 1% of their building cost.

  4. I can understand why, in an economic downturn, people are asking if this is the best use of funds.

    At the same time, I believe art is important. But does it have to be a situation where art is purchased from an artist? Aren’t there projects which can be created by the town’s citizens? What about a wall with tiles made by children? Or a mural that multiple people have helped to create?

    I would think there are many participatory arts projects that would enrich the community and also tap in to the creativity and labor of local citizens.

  5. Liz,

    I think you raise a good point in asking people to think more about how art can get buy in from the community.

    The arts has a powerful ecconomic impact in New York City. According to a recent study by the NY Alliance for the Arts, our more than 1400 non-profit cultural organizations contribute $5.8 billion to our eccnonomy annualy. That is just the tip of the iceberg. We also have seen a $5.4 billion impact from arts-motivated tourists who come to see art but also sleep in hotels, buy tickets, dine out, and shop.

    http://www.allianceforarts.org/get-the-facts/current-reports.php

    To take this argument to a smaller town, art projects like this small one are a magnet for attracting people to visit and patronize local shops. It creates a sense of a “destination”

    Liz, what do you make of this argument that art galvanizes tourists to spend?.

  6. From the last State Council on the Arts meeting, here are similar facts for NJ:

    “Arts and culture are important forces behind some of the most successful cities, towns and rural areas across the state and the nation. In New Jersey, arts organizations supported by the NJ State Council on the Arts return $3 in State tax revenue for every $1 invested. Funding for grants awarded by the Arts Council comes from a dedicated revenue source – theHotel/Motel Occupancy Fee. Bolstered tourism, thriving businesses, job opportunities and increased overall quality of life are among the other returns from strategic investment in the arts.

    -Arts activity stimulates $1.2 billion in economic activity each year.
    -The arts community supports 17,000 businesses and 77,000 jobs.
    -Investment in the arts means $41 million in State tax revenue.
    -34,000 arts events attract 18 million attendees who spend more than $400 million in the local economy.”

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