Ann Arbor Public Art Commission (Dec. 8, 2009): One day after Ann Arbor city council voted to temporarily cut in half a program that funds public art projects, the commission that oversees that funding strategized over how to respond.
They hope to rally others in the community to attend a public hearing at the Dec. 21 city council meeting, when councilmembers will take a final vote on the three-year funding cut.
Several commissioners expressed concern that some councilmembers didn’t seem to understand how the city’s Percent for Art program works.
Since it was formed in 2007, the program has set aside 1% of any city-funded capital improvement project, to be used for public art. The proposal initially approved by council on Monday would cut that funding to a half percent.
Also at the Dec. 21 council meeting, a vote is expected on the program’s first major project: a water sculpture by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl, proposed as an outdoor installation at the new municipal center next to city hall.
A Half Percent for Art?
Margaret Parker, chair of the public art commission, gave a report from Monday night’s city council meeting, which she attended. The proposal that council passed on first reading, she said, would cut the set-aside for public art from 1% to 0.5% – it would not take away money already allocated to the program.
According to a budget summary handed out at Tuesday’s commission meeting, the public art fund has an available balance of $1,323,560 – though a large portion of that is earmarked for a sculpture by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl, which hasn’t yet been approved by council. After a three-year period, the funding for public art will automatically return to 1%, Parker said.
The reason for this proposal, Parker said, is that the city budget is in “terrible trouble.” With dramatic cuts being planned – as much as 30% through fiscal 2012 – there was a sense that public art should do its part. [See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor City Budget: Cuts Begin Now"]
Parker said that mayor John Hieftje and other city councilmembers have asked the commission to support the cut as a way to save the program from being eliminated entirely. At Monday’s council meeting, eight of the 11 councilmembers supported the cut, with two members – Tony Derezinski and Stephen Rapundalo, both representing Ward 2 – voting against it. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) was absent.
Despite the outcome, commissioner Jan Onder said it was quite moving to hear councilmembers speak about their support for public art. “There was just real pain in their voices and in what they said,” she reported. Some councilmembers brought up how important public art was as an economic stimulus, and how it played a crucial role in the Cool Cities initiative.
Katherine Talcott, the city’s public art administrator, noted that Tamara Real – president of the Arts Alliance – also had spoken eloquently during the council meeting’s public commentary time, in support of public art. Real reminded councilmembers that artists were also part of the community and the local economy, Talcott said.
Several commissioners pointed to economic benefits of public art. Parker gave the example of the recent ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, which drew thousands of people to the city. [See Chronicle coverage: "In Search of Ann Arbor Artists: A Sojourn"] Onder also mentioned that the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau is starting to market this area as a winter destination, “so the more visual things we have, the better,” she said.
Onder reported that there was some discussion at the council meeting about how much of the public art allocation has come out of the city’s general fund – none of it has, she clarified. Also, the program caps public art funding that comes from any single capital improvement project to $250,000.
Commissioner Cheryl Zuellig asked what the half percent would be used for, if it’s not going into the Percent for Art program. If that money is going back into the capital improvement projects, Zuellig said, “it’s saying we can build 100 more feet of road.”
“Or three inches,” Parker quipped.
Currently, the percent for art comes out of a project’s contingency fund, which is typically 10% of the total project, Parker said. The half percent would likely remain in the contingency fund, she said. Zuellig, a landscape architect who also serves on the Ypsilanti planning commission, said she doesn’t recall ever seeing a project that ended up with anything left over in its contingency fund. Unless there’s a political reason not to spend it, she said, if it’s in the budget, it gets spent.
Funding for public art would likely decline even without the half-percent cut, Parker said, because the city will be curbing its capital improvement projects, which affects how much money gets set aside for the Percent for Art program. There would likely be about $500,000 available under the Percent for Art program next year, based on planned capital improvements. Cut to a half percent, that amount would be $250,000.
Commissioner Cathy Gendron said it seemed like a goodwill gesture to accept the half-percent cut, but she was concerned that it set a precedent and would make it easier to cut funding in the future as well. She noted that in three years, there would likely be different people on council, possibly not as supportive of public art.
Marsha Chamberlin asked whether any other city programs were targeted for cuts at the council meeting. “I’m trying to figure out why it rose to this level so fast,” she said. [Though the issue has not received significant discussion at council until recently, councilmember Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) first raised the idea of cutting the Percent for Art program in February 2009, at a Sunday night council caucus. See Chronicle coverage: "Discontent Emerges at Caucus."]
Talcott said that city employees had received an email last week from city administrator Roger Fraser outlining the dire budget situation, and that she expected to receive additional information later this week, which she said she’d share with commissioners. “So it’s not just this commission,” she said. “It’s across the board.”
Parker also noted that council had engaged in a heated budget discussion at its Nov. 16 meeting, where the Percent for Art program had been a “kicking boy” for a couple of councilmembers, she said. [The council discussion she referred to related to a capital improvement project at West Park. See Chronicle coverage: "Council discusses budget, public art, Huron River and more"]
Much of the discussion during the commission’s Tuesday meeting focused on how to respond at the next council meeting on Dec. 21. Parker said she plans to speak at the meeting’s public hearing, and to tell councilmembers that the beauty of the Percent for Art program is that it adjusts to difficult times. That’s because it’s tied directly to the amount of capital improvement funding, she said.
The public hearing is an opportunity to talk about how the program works, Parker said, and why it’s important to support funding for public art. She said that Hieftje and Sue McCormick, the city’s director of public services, both suggested that the arts community get as many people as they can to come to the public hearing in support of public art, the Percent for Art program and the Dreiseitl project.
Parker noted that council had been scheduled to vote on funding for Dreiseitl’s work at the Dec. 7 meeting, but that vote was postponed until Dec. 21. [This is not the first time the vote has been pushed back. Previous Chronicle coverage: "City Council Vote on Dreiseitl Delayed"]
Zuellig asked whether they could prepare a statement or joint response, so that commissioners would be speaking with one voice. Chamberlin suggested preparing a fact sheet to distribute to councilmembers and the public. Parker said that McCormick was already working on one.
Talcott reported that the Arts Alliance was having its annual holiday party on Dec. 21, and that Tamara Real had volunteered to recruit people from that event and organize a “performative reaction” for the council’s public hearing.
Chamberlin said it was also important to get people to speak “who aren’t already wearing the colors.” They should include people who are well-known in the community, people from all walks of life and all parts of the city, who are advocates for the arts, she said. One specific example she cited was David Canter, former head of the Pfizer research operation in Ann Arbor. “These things that look like spontaneous rallies are seldom spontaneous,” Chamberlin said.
Onder volunteered to draft a position statement, to be emailed to commissioners before the Dec. 21 council meeting.
Washtenaw Avenue Corridor
Margaret Parker, chair of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, had brought a print copy of AnnArbor.com to the meeting to show commissioners an article about the Washtenaw Avenue Talent Center, a project on which AAPAC commissioner Cheryl Zuellig serves.
Zuellig told commissioners that the effort is part of the broader Ann Arbor Region Success initiative. She’s on a steering committee that’s looking at ways to improve the stretch of Washtenaw Avenue, roughly between Arborland to the west over to the water tower in Ypsilanti. It’s an “extremely vehicular-oriented” road, she noted, that passes through four jurisdictions – Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The steering committee met for the first time last month, and is just beginning what Zuellig described as a multi-year effort.
Commissioners discussed how this section of Washtenaw Avenue was a “gateway” area to Ann Arbor, and as such would be a good place for a public art project. Zuellig said there was opportunity for a project if AATA builds a new transit stop across the street from Arborland – the transit authority previously had a bus stop located in the shopping center’s parking lot, but earlier this year Arborland’s owners asked AATA to remove that stop.
Working with the DDA
Commissioner Cathy Gendron reported that she and fellow commissioner Connie Brown had met with Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, to talk about possible collaborations between AAPAC and the DDA. Their discussion focused on incorporating art into the DDA’s streetscape project along Fifth Avenue. The next step is to meet with the DDA’s project manager, Gendron said.
Margaret Parker said that AAPAC could help the DDA select art for its capital improvement projects, for a fee. Or if the DDA didn’t want to pay a fee, she said, perhaps part of the DDA’s funding for a project could be used to pay for staff costs associated with organizing a juried competition. AAPAC should suggest a process to the DDA for how this might work, Parker said.
Gendron agreed to add a financial component to her future discussions with the DDA.
Marsha Chamberlin, reporting on the work of the public relations committee, asked commissioners for feedback on outreach events. The committee had discussed holding a panel discussion on the general topic of public art, but given the budget situation, she said, “that seems like a joke.”
Katherine Talcott, the city’s public art administrator, suggested considering a more interactive event, possibly a video display that could be set up as a temporary installation at a public place, like city hall. Jan Onder promoted the idea of doing a segment on the Community Television Network’s “Access Soapbox” show. She said that when she owned the downtown shop Generations, she was involved in the Main Street Area Association and they’d gotten great exposure from doing a 5-minute Soapbox segment, which is regularly rebroadcast.
Another possibility, Chamberlin said, was to get on the speaking circuit for groups like Rotary and Kiwanis. The commission could develop a PowerPoint presentation with images of public art they’d collected from other cities, she said. Zuellig noted that this kind of presentation could be tailored, depending on the group – talking to business people, she said, the message could highlight the role of public art in economic development.
Margaret Parker said it would be important to include information about the Herbert Dreiseitl sculpture as well. “We desperately need to get that project out there,” she said. “People don’t understand it.”
At the beginning of the meeting, the commission heard from Hannah Wagner, a University of Michigan student who is hoping to bring more public art to UM’s central campus. Most of the public art is located on north campus, she said, and for non-artists who don’t have classes on north campus, there’s far less opportunity to encounter art unless they actively seek it out. She’s working with another student, Rachel Sherman, to form a new student organization that she described as an extension of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission for central campus. “We’re an idea, at this point,” she said. They hope to start a mural painting project in the dorms next semester.
Commissioners had several suggestions, primarily pointing her toward other art programs at UM, including Arts on Earth, Arts at Michigan and the School of Art & Design. Commissioner Elaine Sims, director of the Gifts of Art program at the UM Health System, also offered to meet with the students.
Margaret Parker, AAPAC’s chair, noted that the cultural planning process for Washtenaw County had cited the importance of involving the younger generation. She said it was fantastic that the students weren’t just interested in public art, but were also interested in AAPAC’s process. “That is truly amazing. I think we should try to use you, by god!”
Changing of the Guard
This was the final meeting for two commissioners – Jan Onder and Jim Kern – whose terms end this year. A cake from Zingerman’s was ordered for the occasion. Cheryl Zuellig – who chairs the planning committee, which is handling nominations to replace Onder and Kern – said they hadn’t had much success in finding candidates.
Margaret Parker reported that she had talked to Jeff Meyers, characterizing him as very excited about the possibility of serving on the commission. Meyers is managing editor of the online magazines Concentrate and Metromode, and serves on the Ann Arbor Cable Commission. Parker also described him as a “young guy,” which Zuellig said fit the characteristics they were looking for in candidates. Some commissioners also mentioned they were impressed with an article he’d written this summer, “What Is Ann Arbor’s Artistic Identity?”
Several other names were floated, including Carl Hueter, a local artist and architect who designed the interior and facade for Performance Network, according to Kern.
Though the commission makes recommendations, it’s the mayor’s role to appoint new commissioners, with approval from city council.
Commissioners present: Marsha Chamberlin, Cathy Gendron, Jim Kern, Jan Onder, Margaret Parker, Elaine Sims, Cheryl Zuellig. Others: Katherine Talcott, Jean Borger
Absent: Connie Brown, Jim Curtis
Next regular meeting: Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m., 7th floor conference room of the City Center Building, 220 E. Huron St. [confirm date]