What’s Ahead for Public Art in Ann Arbor?

Art commission, DDA grapple with prioritizing projects
This bus stop

This bus stop was one of several examples of functional public art from other cities that the Ann Arbor DDA has collected. It was pinned to the wall of the DDA conference room during a joint meeting with the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission on May 26.

On May 26, the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission spent several hours focused on developing its plan for the coming year. This included a joint meeting with the Downtown Development Authority about collaboration between the two groups, and a planning meeting later in the day with just AAPAC members to decide which public art projects to include in its annual plan for the next fiscal year.

Though no decisions were made, the meetings gave some insight into priorities for public art in Ann Arbor, who’ll be choosing and funding projects, and what’s ahead for the coming year.

Meeting with the DDA

Four DDA board members and seven AAPAC commissioners spent their joint meeting trying to negotiate how the two groups could potentially work together using money from the DDA’s percent for the arts set-aside program. That’s a separate program from the city’s Percent for Art, which AAPAC administers. Both programs designate 1% of the cost of a public building project for art, with a cap of $250,000 per project for both the city and the DDA.

They discussed the potential use of $50,000 the DDA has set aside using this program from its Fourth and William parking structure expansion project, which was completed in 2007.

AAPAC Vice Chair Jan Onder expressed some concern over differences in how the two groups allocate their funding. Onder said that AAPAC reserves 10% of the money for a project to pay for preservation and maintenance and 15% for administration. (AAPAC Chair Margaret Parker later explained that these percentages are rough estimates that the commission has used in the past.) The DDA, on the other hand, sets aside 30% for maintenance and preservation, Onder said.

Parker said she thinks the tricky part would be working with the DDA while still adhering to city guidelines that the commission has to follow. “How do we fit your project into all these restrictions the city has given us?” Parker said.

Parker also voiced some concern over DDA funding. It would be different from the money AAPAC gets from the city, which Parker described as coming in a steady stream. “The DDA funds come in chunks at arbitrary times,” Parker said. “That’s going to require a completely different kind of planning.”

On the DDA’s side, the authority’s executive director, Susan Pollay, expressed some concern about AAPAC spending too much on artists or administrators to help plan projects. She said it was necessary to “shepherd money” so most of it was spent on the artwork itself.

DDA board member John Splitt remarked at one point that he and other board members had originally thought they would just hand over the money to AAPAC and not have any input in its use. But at the meeting, Splitt observed that some DDA members had changed their minds and wanted some say in the process.

Pollay agreed, saying that one way to handle it would be for the DDA to give AAPAC guidelines for projects funded by the DDA, such as whether the percent set aside for public art should be used on the project that generated those funds (for example, should funds generated from a parking structure be used specifically for public art at that structure, or could the money be used for public art at a different site). Other guidelines might include whether the art should be two- or three-dimensional, and what materials should be used to create it.

One priority for the DDA was creating public art for an underground parking structure the DDA plans to construct on Fifth Avenue near the Ann Arbor District Library.

DDA board member John Mouat thought they should consider art for the structure that related to lighting. The structure will be entirely underground, and lighting it (naturally and artificially) will be a safety and security concern. “To me, light is a huge aspect of this,” Mouat said.

DDA board member Joan Lowenstein said she’d like to see art that created a place for people to gather, “art that really draws people in and makes people want to touch it and stay there.”

“I think that’s important, especially for this library area,” Lowenstein said.

However, Parker pointed out that the library parking structure wouldn’t necessarily get top priority from AAPAC, as the commission already had 10 public art project suggestions from community members.

“We have to consider every one of these and prioritize them,” Parker said.

At one point, Parker recommended that the DDA hire Katherine Talcott as a part-time administrator. Talcott currently works 20 hours as administrator for the city’s Percent for Art program. If she worked an additional 20 hours for the DDA, Parker reasoned, Talcott could help coordinate the two groups.

AAPAC commissioner Elaine Sims proposed coming up with a formal set of guidelines regulating how the two organizations would partner. “It could be a one-page document, but it’s an understanding of how the two organizations work together,” Sims said. “It’s just a question of formalizing how we work together.”

The meeting ended with AAPAC and DDA members seeming to agree that if the two organizations wanted to form a partnership, it would take a lot more work.

“Maybe this is the first of many conversations,” Pollay said. “I think we’ve got some homework to do.”

AAPAC planning meeting

Later in the day, AAPAC members met again to reach a consensus on their annual plan for the next fiscal year. Parker reminded the commissioners that they needed to present their list of proposed projects to the city council by June 15.

The first thing the commission discussed was its meeting with the DDA. Parker remarked that the two groups haven’t communicated well in the past, and the joint session helped them understand each other a little better. AAPAC commissioner Connie Brown volunteered to be the liaison between the two groups and to make the next contact with the DDA.

Ultimately, two possible DDA collaborations made their way into AAPAC’s annual plan as project sites: the southwest wall of the Fourth and William parking structure, and the planned underground parking structure on Fifth Avenue.

However, commissioners decided that they wouldn’t allocate any city funds to those projects yet. “There’s too many unknowns,” said commissioner Cheryl Zuellig. Instead, they opted to say in their plan that they intend to develop a working relationship with the DDA based on those two possible projects, using funds from the DDA.

Parker told the commissioners that AAPAC would receive $400,000 through the city’s Percent for Art program in fiscal 2010, which begins July 1.

Some items on AAPAC’s list of projects for FY 2010 include:

  • $50,000 to pay for work related to several donations of art offered to the city that still need to be vetted and accepted (the money would go toward paying jurors for a peer review, site planning and building, structural engineering fees, storage, shipping, installation, repair after moving, signage, educational material and dedication, Parker explained later in an email);
  • a long-term city gateway project for $100,000;
  • a partnership with the University of Michigan School of Art and Design artist residency program for an approximately $10,000 project (Sims later explained that this would involve an artist visiting UM in the fall who wants to do an environmental project with the city);
  • a $50,000 pool for unanticipated small projects that could be completed within the year.

Parker later clarified in an email that the dollar amounts assigned to the items in the plan are general estimates and for discussion purposes only at this point.

The commission also listed public art for the municipal center as an ongoing project. AAPAC is paying the German artist Herbert Dreiseitl $77,000 to submit a proposal for three installations at the municipal center, and has budgeted roughly $700,000 for the project. For fiscal 2009, the Percent for Art program received about $1 million. There was some debate as to whether the approximately $200,000 remaining that was allotted to the center in fiscal 2009 could be used for other projects within the center or if it was restricted to Dreiseitl’s work. The commissioners ultimately decided they would have to look back on their voting records to resolve the issue. 

The commissioners chose these projects by voting based on a set of criteria they had established previously and reviewed earlier in the May 26 planning meeting. These included certain “givens,” such as the project must be: 1) visible and accessible to the public, 2) made of durable materials appropriate to the setting, and 3) be of a scale/mass/style/theme in keeping with the project goal or theme. Commissioners also established a primary goal to create a diverse portfolio of public art.

Commissioners listed certain factors that would determine how high a priority a project should be, including the fact that it is not knowingly offensive, appeals to a broad audience and is community-focused, among other things.

AAPAC will hold its next regular meeting on Tuesday, June 9 at 4:30 p.m. at city council chambers, 2nd floor, 100 N. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor.

About the writer: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle. 


  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 7, 2009 at 9:14 am | permalink

    “At one point, Parker recommended that the DDA hire Katherine Talcott as a part-time administrator. Talcott currently works 20 hours as administrator for the city’s Percent for Art program. If she worked an additional 20 hours for the DDA, Parker reasoned, Talcott could help coordinate the two groups.”

    This would be an outright conflict of interest. The DDA should reject this suggestion out of hand.

    Still waiting for public release of the administrator’s contract (why not post it on the AAPAC website(s) and it would be a positive thing for the AAPAC address the DDA question they spent too much on administration and not enough of their budget on art.


  2. June 7, 2009 at 12:31 pm | permalink

    “This would be an outright conflict of interest.”

    How so?

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 8, 2009 at 10:00 am | permalink

    The two groups, from this article, have a different view on how the art topic should be handled. To suggest one person should be hired for those duties at both groups appears to be another step in stacking the DDA with ‘yes’ people who won’t question the Mayor,in the same way Rene Greff and Dave DeVarti won’t/weren’t allowed to serve on the board.

    Especially considering this quote from Judy McGovern’s Mlive blog about the ‘disaster’ the AAPAC was involved in with the Court-Police Building:

    From Judy McGoverns M Live blog cut and pasted);

    “In a March 16 exchange with Council Member Margie Teall, Council Member Leigh Greden dealt with a political hot potato while council guests and rank-and-file citizens stood at the mic and talked about community events and problems.

    The subject is Ann Arbor’s public art program and the move to spend perhaps three-quarter of a million dollars for an installation at city hall. (Previous coverage.)

    7:29 p.m. Greden to Teall – “Did Taylor call you? The art thing is a disaster. We need to find a way to clean it up.”

    7:31 p.m. Teall to Greden – “…stop calling it a disaster.”

    7:35 p.m. Greden to Teall – “Margie, I have *very* good instincts. We haven’t had a PR mess like this in quite some time. This has stretched into the masses. Taylor says Ned and Bernstein were complaining. The public sees it as a very simple analysis: Cops before art. Roads before art.”

    That’s not the analysis Greden offered when he complained about News’ coverage of the issue. Instead, he argued that there was no controversy… and certainly no “disaster.”"

  4. By Jenny McKillop
    June 9, 2009 at 8:02 am | permalink

    “Commissioners listed certain factors that would determine how high a priority a project should be, including the fact that it is not knowingly offensive, appeals to a broad audience and is community-focused, among other things.”

    This is not describing great art; it is describing decoration. Great art is usually offensive to somebody, doesn’t appeal to the masses, and brings the community out of it’s comfort-zone. And it can be beautiful at the same time. That is it’s job.

  5. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 9, 2009 at 11:09 am | permalink

    You mean like made for tv movies on Hallmark television?

  6. June 15, 2009 at 2:48 am | permalink

    Our built environment matters – that’s why we care about public art. The best use of public art funds at this moment (assuming that cops and roads don’t matter) would be to preserve our beautiful historic homes on 5th street in Germantown. This would have a strong visual impact, indicate that Ann Arbor is progressive enough to understand the importance of history while other parts of central Ann Arbor are “densified”, and be better for our individual souls than yet another rusting-metal sculpture.