City Council Vote on Dreiseitl Delayed

Council likely to consider scaled-back art project on Dec. 7

Ann Arbor Public Art Commission meeting (Nov. 10, 2009): Based on the recommendation of Sue McCormick, the city’s public services administrator, the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission will be forwarding a resolution to city council for approval of only one of three art pieces by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl.

The city has already paid Dreiseitl for the design of three pieces for the city’s new municipal center, also known as the police-courts facility, being built next to city hall. But it will only be the outdoor piece – a storm water fountain and sculpture – that city council is expected to vote on at its Dec. 7 meeting.

City council was originally expected to vote on the Dreiseitl project at its Nov. 16 meeting. According to AAPAC chair Margaret Parker, the delay in voting on the outdoor piece, which currently has a budget of $728,458, was due to McCormick’s concern over unanswered questions that require additional input from the municipal center’s architect as well as Dreiseitl. McCormick had pointed to unresolved issues with the two indoor pieces in deciding to leave them out of the vote completely, Parker said.

Parker handled the status report on Dreiseitl’s project in the absence of Katherine Talcott, the city’s part-time administrator for public art, who has been managing the project. Talcott had been impeded by traffic on her way back to Ann Arbor from Pittsburgh, and did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Background on Percent for Art and Dreiseitl’s Project

Two years ago, at its Nov. 5, 2007 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council adopted an ordinance that established the Percent for Art program. It specifies in part:

Except as otherwise provided in this section, all capital improvement projects funded wholly or partly by the city shall include funds for public art equal to one percent (1%) of the construction costs identified in the initial project estimate, up to a maximum of $250,000 per project. Where a capital improvement project is only partly funded by the city, the amount of funds allocated for public art shall be one percent of that portion of the project that is city-funded, up to a maximum of $250,000 per project. All appropriations for capital improvements falling within the provisions of this chapter shall be deemed to include funding to implement the requirements of this section 1.

The following is a timeline, in broad strokes, with key dates in the evolution of the Dreiseitl art project:

  • September 2008: Dreiseitl visits Ann Arbor, as keynote speaker for the Huron River Watershed Council’s State of the Huron conference. He meets with AAPAC’s muncipal center task force, which then recommends to AAPAC that Dreiseitl be commissioned to design three pieces of art at the municipal center, also known as the police-courts facility.
  • October 2008: Art commission recommends commissioning design for three pieces of art at the municipal center – one outdoor sculpture, and two indoor wall pieces.
  • March 2, 2009: City council approves Dreiseitl’s design fees at $77,000.
  • July 20, 2009: Dreiseitl visits Ann Arbor to unveil his design concepts at a public forum and at city council.
  • September 2009: Dreiseitl returns to Ann Arbor to meet with municipal center architects and others.
  • Oct. 19, 2009: At a special meeting, the municipal center task force recommends accepting designs for all three pieces.
  • Oct. 19, 2009. At a special meeting, AAPAC recommends accepting design for the outdoor sculpture – tabling and placing contingencies on the other two indoor pieces.
  • Dec. 7, 2009: Possible vote by the city council on the outdoor sculpture.

Dreiseitl: Why Delay the  Vote?

In explaining why the expected vote at the city council’s Nov. 16 meeting would not happen until Dec. 7, Parker said that more information was needed from Quinn Evans, the architect on the municipal center project, as well as from Herbert Dreiseitl himself. Dreiseitl is currently working on a project in Singapore, was very busy, and it has been difficult for the art commission to reach him, Parker said.

She reported that Sue McCormick, the city’s public services administrator, had put the resolution together that was to come before the city council, and that McCormick’s conclusion was that only the outdoor sculpture could be voted on. “That’s how it’s come down,” Parker said. [For background on the other two indoor art pieces Dreiseitl was commissioned to design, see previous Chronicle coverage: "Dreiseitl Project Moves to City Council"]

The budget breakdown that Parker had from Quinn Evans showed a cost for the outdoor sculpture of $728,458. That was less, Parker said, than the roughly $841,000 price tag on all three pieces.

Commissioner Jim Curtis had a question about the outdoor seating adjacent to the sculpture – is that included in the project? Parker said that everyone has said the seating component will come later, not as a part of the project.

Commissioner Connie Brown asked if the lower budget [$728,458 versus $841,000] reflected any of the suggestions for changes to the outdoor sculpture from the municipal center task force that were intended to reduce costs. Parker said that while there’d been suggestions made, none had been implemented in the design.

Those suggestions had included, Parker said, making the sculpture shorter, eliminating the lighting function, reducing the water flow elements, and eliminating the steel at the base of the sculpture. Curtis elicited the clarification from Parker that the lack of interest in implementing those design changes had not resulted from an inability to contact Dreiseitl, but rather that “nobody wanted to do them.”

Parker reiterated that the task force had vote unanimously for all three municipal center art projects that had been designed by Dreiseitl. Because of questions about the lighting in the lobby piece and the supporting wall in the atrium piece, the art commission had tabled action on one piece and set conditions on the other during a special meeting called on Oct. 19 to vote on the project.

Brown asked what would happen with the indoor pieces. Subsequent discussion by Parker and Curtis suggests that it’s not clear if or how the other indoor pieces could eventually be completed. Curtis expressed hope that the places for their installation could be reserved in the building as available space, even though a blank wall might not look great in the interim.

Parker explained to commissioner Cathy Gendron that the glass walls for the indoor pieces had not, in fact, been ordered, and that Sue McCormick had said there were too many open questions about the indoor pieces to vote on them.

Dreiseitl: Arguments for Voting Yes

Parker distributed to art commission members some talking points in support of the project that could be conveyed to “anyone who’s willing to listen,” which had been sent to city council members:

1. The design integrates a 12′ high steel sculpture, storm water circulation, electrical and computer systems into an interactive water piece that children can play in – $750,000 is a very reasonable price for such a design.

2. 80% of funds will go to Michigan fabricators, contractors, architects and designers – this means art is generating jobs for Michigan workers.

3. Both the Municipal Center Task Force and AAPAC voted unanimously for the aesthetic and civic value of this project.

4. City staff, engineers, architects and designers of the building are all whole-heartedly behind this public art installation.

5. Ann Arbor would become known as the site of a world renowned artist who specializes in environmental art.

6. If the money were not used for this piece, it would go back to the Public Art Fund and could not be used for any other reason. Even if the Percent for Art ordinance were eliminated, the money would go back to the designated funds for the capital projects that generated them – sewer, water, transportation, etc.

7. Because the building is coming along quickly, this project is our only chance to make something that is embedded in the building’s infrastructure. It would take at least another year to come up with another proposal for this primary site, and then it would simply sit in the space, not demonstrate the environmental goals of the building.

8. Art is good business. Grand Rapids proved with ArtPrize that art in public spaces can generate business, public awareness for our city, and community empowerment. This is what this project will do in Ann Arbor, but on a permanent basis. All we need to do is follow through with the two-year project we’ve been working on together.

Dreiseitl: Would/Could the City Council Vote No?

Later in the meeting, commissioner Cathy Gendron commented that it would be shocking at this point if the city council voted down the Dreiseitl project. Parker responded by saying that this highlighted the importance of having a municipal center task force with city council and city staff membership.

That task force consists of: Ray Detter of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council; Bob Grese, director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum; Sue McCormick, director of public services for the city; AAPAC chair Margaret Parker; Jan Onder of AAPAC; Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council; Ann Arbor city councilmember Margie Teall; Spring Tremaine, a lieutenant with the Ann Arbor Police Department; Julie Creal, a judge with the 15th District Court; and Elona Van Gent of the University of Michigan.

Commissioner Connie Brown noted that the council had already voted on the first piece of the proposal – the concept design. Discussion among Brown, Parker and commissioner Marsha Chamberlin drew out the fact that the council had voted not for a particular design, but rather to commission Dreiseitl to create a design. That had been based, said Parker, on Dreiseitl’s background and expertise.

Brown cautioned that artists who brought projects before AAPAC understand clearly that a “No” was still possible, even if their project survived the selection process and won recommendation to city council for funding. Chamberlin suggested that it was a matter of the culture among artists – architects and real estate developers were used to a tradition of undergoing a long and arduous process, only to have a proposal rejected at the final step. But did artists have the same culture? Brown echoed Chamberlin’s sentiment that developers were used to that kind of rejection late in a process, saying that artists needed to understand that as well.

Parker expressed her feeling that artists were used to the idea that their proposal could be rejected even after having successfully navigated through many steps of a process.

In their deliberations, art commissioners did not mention an email that had been circulated the previous day, Nov. 9, by councilmember Christopher Taylor to his Ward 3 constituents, in which he framed the issue of the Dreiseitl vote as a possible choice between funding public art and funding human services:

I write today to seek your thoughts on a difficult issue that will likely come before Council on [November 16]. [Editor's note: It's now clear that it will likely be voted on at council's Dec. 7 meeting.] The issue is this: should Ann Arbor spend money that it has been saving in its Public Art Fund on public art, or should it spend that money instead on human services.

Without advocating for either position, Taylor discusses in his email the merits and de-merits of arguments both ways, including the possibility that the Percent for Art ordinance be amended so that monies previously earmarked for public art be spent this winter “to provide comfort and security to scores, if not hundreds, of persons during the dead of winter in bleak economic times.”

This isn’t the first time that a councilmember has raised the issue of funding for public art. In February 2009, at a Sunday night caucus, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) had mooted the idea of modifying the Percent for Art ordinance – not to reallocate the money to human services, but rather to reduce the amount earmarked for public art. From Chronicle coverage of that caucus ["Discontent Emerges at Caucus"]:

One Percent for Art? Really??

Higgins also called into question the need for construction projects to allocate a full 1% for public art, noting that around $1 million had already accumulated in the fund in the year since the program was adopted. She wondered if perhaps a half percent would be a more appropriate level.

Councilmember Christopher Taylor noted light-heartedly that “A Half-Percent For Art!” just doesn’t have quite the same ring. But on a more serious note he suggested that monies are being accumulated faster than they’re being allocated because a mechanism for distribution is still getting up and running.

Chair’s Report

In addition to discussing the Dreiseitl project, which threaded through much of the other discussion during AAPAC’s Nov. 10 meeting, the commission heard reports from each of its committees and from its chair.

Parker reported that she’d attended a cultural planning session by the Arts Alliance. They’re focused on (i) communications, (ii) capacity building, and (iii) funding. She said she saw an overlap in the missions of the Arts Alliance and AAPAC in that first area: communications. She cited the planned Arts Alliance web portal as an example where public art could have a presence. [At the DDA's October board meeting, Arts Alliance president Tamara Real asked the DDA board to help with the funding of the web portal. At the DDA's November board meeting, the report from its partnerships committee was that the request had been put off for now.]

Parker said she also saw the opportunity to partner on temporary art projects – FestiFools, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, University Musical Society, and artists residencies.

Parker reported that she’d given a talk as part of a brown bag series at the Institute for the Humanities with Larry Cressman, associate professor of art at the University of Michigan (and former AAPAC member) and Elaine Sims, director of UM’s Gifts of Art program and current AAPAC commissioner. The segment will be broadcast on Michigan Television – Comcast Cable channel 24. Parker said that it was striking how the purely civic orientation of art through the public art commission contrasted with the constraints of art that’s installed in, say, a hospital setting. She cited two different UM websites documenting public art. One includes public art in different areas of the UM campus and the other is the UM Museum of Art website.

Present: Connie Brown, Jim Curtis, Marsha Chamberlin, Cathy Gendron, Margaret Parker.

Absent: Jim Kern, Jan Onder, Elaine Sims, Cheryl Zuellig.

Next meeting: Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009 at 4:30 p.m. on the 7th floor of the City Center. [confirm date]


  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    November 16, 2009 at 6:38 am | permalink

    “Dreiseitl is currently working on a project in Singapore, was very busy, and it has been difficult for the art commission to reach him, Parker said.”

    Lol. I’m sure he’s ‘very busy’ now that he’s cashed his AAPAC check.

  2. By ROB
    November 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    Talk about tone-deaf politicians… these folks take the prize for hutzpah, if nothing else. They should be falling all over themselves do completely undo this entire clueless misstep, lest it prove their own political undoing. What a complete waste of public funds, and what a complete betrayal of the public’s trust!.

  3. By Marvfin Face
    November 17, 2009 at 8:46 am | permalink

    I think the One Percent for Art is a great idea and one that we should hold on to. That being said, the Dreiseitl deal has been a HUGE fiasco that has turned many people off and set up sides in an argument that did not need to occur.

    I still feel badly that, contrary to Ms. Parkers public stance, local artists were not considered and she went with an artist for name only. This latest incident of Dreiseitl not being available due to his schedule was inevitable. A comment above makes it sound like $730,000 is a lot of money but for Dreiseitl this is actually very little compensation compared to what he is usually involved with. This project was so small that he has never made it a priority and likely gave it to one of his student interns to fuss with. Our little project here in Ann Arbor is a fruit fly in his wine. Imagine what we could have had if an up and coming local or regional artist poured their entire creative energy into this. But the stormwater is over the dam and we will move on. I hope everyone at the art commission remembers this the next time they go get an artist.

    One thing this project has done similar to Grand Rapids ArtPrize is to get people talking about art and debating it. At least it’s not being ignored.

  4. By Marvin Face
    November 17, 2009 at 9:37 am | permalink

    oops. Typo on my name.