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1% for the Arts: A Hollow Gesture?

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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