CHICAGO — The National Governors Association has just issued a report titled “New Engines for Growth: Five Roles for Arts, Culture and Design.” I decided to read the whole thing, a task that I approached with some dread, given the prospect of wading through 45 pages of corporate art-speak. In fact, it turns out that the report is written in a refreshingly clear style, and it lays out a set of concrete proposals that make sense to anyone who has thought about this subject.
The report has lots of information about states that have actively helped artists and designers, both by redirecting existing funds and seeking out new funding sources. It develops those statistics into an argument for fostering larger art and design businesses — an example I liked was a company in Colorado that makes skis imprinted with images from the designer’s wacky paintings. This leads, in turn, to a call for reinstating arts education at the grade level in US schools (who could argue against that?).
As I was reading the section on festivals, “arts corridors” and so on, I thought about my recent visit to Urbana, Illinois. Urbana, while not mentioned in the NGA report, seems already to have implemented some of the report’s proposals, particularly in the realm of public art. I contacted Christina McClelland, the City of Urbana’s public art coordinator, and asked her how the program got started. “The development of the program began in September 2005, when the Urbana City Council included the creation of a Public Arts Program in its City Council Common Goals,” she said. “After a feasibility study and a community input process, an ordinance was passed in 2008 that established the program.”
And what has the program funded since then?
“It supports a wide variety of projects, including the Urbana Sculpture Project, which brings sculptures to Urbana on two-year leases; Artist of the Corridor, which provides exhibition space to Urbana artists in the lobby of the city building; Art Now!, a monthly television program in which public arts commissioners interview local artists; and art workshops and performances at Urbana’s Market at the Square, our local farmer’s market. Two permanent public art projects are also in progress, one of which is a new piece of public art for King Park that will commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The longest-running initiative has been the Urbana Arts Grants Program, which since 2008 has awarded over $180,000 in funding to 85 projects — from individual artists and artist teams, to groups, ensembles and arts organizations, all the way up to festivals for projects occurring in Urbana.”
Where does the funding come from?
“Primarily through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. Some funding also comes from donations and T3 liquor license fees, which are for temporary liquor licenses for outdoor festivals by private promoters.”
And what does McClelland consider the greatest challenge for the Urbana public art program?
“As a relatively new program, one challenge is community awareness. I am often amazed to find that residents don’t know the program exists! As the grant program continues this seems to be changing, as many grant projects engage new sections of the community through their projects. The large student population of the University of Illinois can be challenging to engage with due to their fairly transient nature. One way to address this has been to conduct several grant workshops in partnership with the university and in the community to help demystify the process and get the word out once applications are available. We hope to offer even more of these workshops in partnership with other arts and education organizations for the 2013 Urbana Arts Grants cycle. As some of our permanent projects begin construction I think our program will also become more high profile.”
The conclusion of the NGA report, with its associated press releases, says that all of the focus on the arts is ultimately about one thing: economic growth. While I didn’t ask McClelland specifically about that, it’s clear from our conversation that for her city, at least, the economic value of the arts and arts programming can only come about by delivering those benefits — community participation, appreciation of the intangibles of art — that can’t be measured in dollars alone. It’s a tension that underlies all of these contemporary discussions of art and design as a form of job creation. I’m sure I’m not the only person who hopes that the National Governors Association’s bet is correct.