Column: Two Questions on Public Art

Voters need more clarity on ballot for proposed public art millage

The Ann Arbor city council voted last Thursday to reject placing a question on the Nov. 6 ballot concerning the city’s contractual powers with respect to city parkland. The charter already requires that the sale of city parkland be subjected to a citywide referendum. That requirement stems from a 2008 voter-approved charter amendment.

Money for Art

Is this art? Or is it a question about art? Or is it two questions about art? Or is it a lazy way to add a picture to a boring op-ed piece? One thing’s for sure: It cost $7.05 and was not paid for by a millage.

The ballot question rejected by councilmembers last week would have asked voters if they wanted certain kinds of long-term leases on city parkland to require the same voter approval. Much of the debate this time around centered on what voters meant when they approved the charter amendment in 2008.

Next week, at its Aug. 20 meeting, the council will weigh whether to place a different question on the Nov. 6 ballot – asking voters if they’d like to tax themselves an average of around $10 a year to pay for public art. [For details, including the ballot language and charter amendment, see: "Ballot Questions: Parks, Public Art Funding"]

If the council pursues this specific proposal for a public art millage, then we will face another challenge in discerning voter intent – a challenge even greater than the one posed by the parks charter amendment. But it’s a challenge that can be easily met – by asking voters to vote on two separate questions, instead of just one. 

The city already has a Percent for Art program, established by a 2007 ordinance, that requires 1% of all capital project budgets be set aside for public art – up to a limit of $250,00o per project. The program has generated a fair amount of controversy, partly because it’s not clear that it has a solid legal foundation. The city council also has considered but ultimately rejected a reduction in the percentage on three separate occasions since 2007.

The extraordinarily short time frame for consideration of the current public art millage proposal has led to considerable confusion about the legal effects of different millage vote outcomes. The short time frame is due to the fact that councilmember Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) unveiled the proposal for the first time at the council’s Aug. 9 meeting. It was not a proposal that had come through the city’s public art commission, though commissioners subsequently called a special meeting for Aug. 15 to consider it.

Here’s the ballot question that Taylor proposed:

Shall the Charter be amended to limit sources of funding for public art and to authorize a new tax of up to one-tenth (0.10) of a mill for 2013 through 2016 to fund public art, which 0.10 mill will raise in the first year of levy the estimated revenue of $459,273?

The corresponding charter language would be [emphasis added]:

Funds for Public Art
SECTION 8.24. In addition to any other amount which the City is authorized to raise by general tax upon the real and personal property by this Charter or any other provision of law, the City shall, in 2013 through 2016, annually levy a tax of up to one-tenth (0.10) of a mill on all taxable real and personal property situated within the City for the purpose of providing funds for public art, including but not limited to the permanent and temporary acquisition, maintenance and repair of works of art for display in or on public structures or sites and/or as part of or adjacent to public streets and sidewalks, and performance art on City streets, sidewalks or sites. Except for funds previously raised, set aside, allocated or otherwise designated to be used for public art, including such funds in the July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013 fiscal year budget, and except for funds that are received by grant, gift, bequest or other donation to the City for public art, for the duration of this millage, the City shall not raise, set aside or designate funds for public art in any other manner. This millage also shall not preclude the grant, gift, bequest or other donation to the City of works of art.

If approved by voters, the proposal would, for a four-year period, suspend the Percent for Art ordinance requirement of the current set-aside for public art. If the millage were to fail, the ballot language would not eliminate or reduce the Percent for Art program. Indeed, if the millage were to fail, the ballot language would have no legal impact on the existing Percent for Art program.

The amounts of money per year that the two approaches would generate are roughly comparable – but at around $450,000 a year, the millage would generate somewhat more than the Percent for Art program has historically yielded, on average.

A key difference between the two approaches – Percent for Art versus a millage – is the way the funds can be used. Casually speaking, the Percent for Art funds – which are tied to capital projects – can be spent only on permanent, “monumental” types of art. Funds generated from a millage could be spent on nearly anything that someone could plausibly claim is art – including temporary works, or performance pieces.

So what would it mean if someone votes no on the proposed single ballot question?

A no vote could mean: “I do not support public spending on art.” That’s too bad, because a no vote implicitly supports leaving the Percent for Art program in place.

A no vote could also mean: “I support public spending on art – but only through the Percent for Art program.” That’s too bad, because some elected officials are prepared to analyze a failure of the millage as a lack of support for public spending on art and are willing, on that basis, to eliminate the Percent for Art program.

What would it mean if someone votes yes on the single ballot question for the public art millage?

A yes vote could mean: “I support public spending on art – even though I don’t think a millage is the best way to fund it. I’m voting yes because I don’t want my no vote to be misconstrued as a lack of support for public spending on art.” That’s too bad, because there’s no guarantee that a no vote would be interpreted by the city council as a lack of support for public art.

A yes vote could mean: “I do not support public spending on art – but if we’re going to spend public money on art, then it should be in a way that offers reasonable flexibility.” That’s too bad, because you’re agreeing to let the hand of local government reach into your pocket and take $10 a year out of it to pay for art.

What I think we might have learned from the park sale/lease charter amendment debate is this: What voters mean is something we’re going to argue about – no matter how simple and straightforward it might seem at first glance.

But even at first glance the public art millage ballot question does not seem simple and straightforward. We’ve been told that the state attorney general has approved the language as to its form. But it’s not clear (to me, anyway) that it meets the statutory standard requiring that the question is confined to a single proposition. Two propositions appear to be included in the single question: (a) Shall we enact a public art millage? and (b) Shall this millage be the only source of public art funding for the duration of the millage?

Even if the single question meets the attorney general’s review standard, I think it’s still a bad idea to place that in front of voters. Instead, it would be possible to ask voters clearly, in two separate questions, what they’d like to do. This approach would not require exploring the contents of the electorate’s collective mind to discern what voters meant. The two questions could be these: (1) Shall we enact a public art millage? and (2) Shall we continue to set aside funds for public art under the city’s Percent for Art ordinance?

If you don’t like the idea of public money being spent on art, then vote no on both questions. If you’d like both forms of funding (i.e., to increase current levels of funding), then vote yes on both questions. If you like one but not the other form of using public money to pay for art, then vote for one but not the other.

That’s the kind of choice it makes sense for the city council to give us on the ballot. If it takes a bit longer to work out the details of giving voters that kind of choice, then it will be worth the extra time. If the question doesn’t go on the Nov. 6 ballot then it can just as easily be placed on the ballot at a future election.

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  1. August 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm | permalink

    Yes, yes. Thank you.

  2. August 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    To some extent, that “problem” is often true for all sorts of ballot questions. For example–if I vote no on the library millage, does that mean I don’t support libraries? [In my case, that's not what it would mean.]

  3. By Steve Bean
    August 14, 2012 at 6:13 pm | permalink

    There you go again with that logic stuff, Dave. Don’t you realize that it obfuscates the obfuscation?!

  4. By Diane
    August 15, 2012 at 7:40 am | permalink

    I don’t think this is a problem at all. A question is a question. The answer is the answer. Everyone needs to stop over thinking it. There can 100s of reasons why people will vote yes or no on the art millage or any millage for that matter. 100% consensus on the reasoning is not required for the vote to be valid. If asked are you willing to pay a new tax for public art, the only result of that is yes or no. Not yes but or no but.

    However, I do agree that if it fails, it is legitimate to then ask (after the failure) do people support any expenditures on public art from any city fund? Some may not be willing to pay a new tax and might actually prefer the current system. Nonetheless, voters need simple, direct questions.

    Over thinking causes all sorts of problems for all ballot proposals. If the library millage for a new building fails, should we then close down all the libraries because people no longer support libraries. Does that mean people hate books and wish for the demise of them in favor of all electronic media. Does that mean people think that the library has no business renting movies and should just concentrate on books and should not need space for movie rentals? It means none of that. It just simply means voters do not want to spend $65 million dollars on a new building.

    Over thinking the question is just speculation and honestly not logical at all. Ask a question. Get an answer and then go from there.

  5. August 15, 2012 at 9:35 am | permalink

    I agree with Diane.

    There is another way for Council to clarify the choices before the public. A charter amendment ballot question comes before Council in the form of a resolution. Council could say in the resolution (but not in the ballot language) that it intends to repeal the percent for art program regardless of the outcome of the millage before a certain date – say January 1, 2013. The voters would then know that this troubled program (who can forget the Dryseitl?) will disappear once and for all. If the voters want public art, they must vote for the millage, with its more flexible program.

    Also, considering the outcome of the recent Council primaries, it could be that after the November elections there will be a Council majority favoring outright repeal of the present program.

    Supporters of public art may be wise to support the millage. Otherwise, they may lose everything.

  6. By bob elton
    August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am | permalink

    I think the current angst about public art stems not so much from the money spent, but from the lack of results and the money not spent.

    I served on the original art commission, much of the time as chair. Obviously, I think public art is an important component of our civic environment.

    But I think peole see that the current commission has stashed away close to a million dollars, and produced litle to show for it. Even the showcase piece, the fountain in front of the new city hall, fails to function. Worse, I think the arts community in Ann Arbor feels that the commission stnads in the way of public art, rather than promoting it.

    True leadership on the commission could have avoided much of the controversy, and proibably the need for a vote on the value of public art in Ann Arbor.

  7. By Rick Cronn
    August 15, 2012 at 10:40 am | permalink

    The worst part of the public art process is the inability of City Hall to design and execute a comprehensive plan.

    The current % for Art program was, imho, poorly conceived and rushed to take advantage of the newly legislated revenue without having a long term comprehensive plan. The politically appointed committee, stacked with connected arts elitists, paid only lip service to public input and again, imho, tends to have a limited view of what they consider to be Public Art. The fountain may be nice, but for a first major effort, from the general public’s view, it’s an epic fail on all levels.

    The worst of it is that no one in City Hall knows how to design and “roll out” these programs. There was little if any effort to inform and build public support for the program before it was presented to the public. It appeared to be more of the current City Hall strategy of “Do it now before everyone figures out what we’re doing. If there are problems we’ll blame somebody else and fix them only if we have to.”

    I’m all for the percent for art and would support a millage. IF and only IF there is more transparency, honest inclusion of other voices and a real effort at selling the percent or the tax to the public AFTER designing a comprehensive program based on how such a program would best serve the city and its residents.

  8. By DrData
    August 15, 2012 at 10:21 pm | permalink

    @Diane (#4). A question is not just a question. How does someone answer this: have you stopped beating your wife?

    It is a bad question because there’s no answer a person that never beat his/her wife can give.

  9. By Diane
    August 16, 2012 at 9:34 am | permalink

    @Dr. Data, ballot proposals are polar question where there is a definite yes or no response (do you agree or disagree). A voter can choose an answer based on what the language says. The reasoning behind their choice does not change the result. There may be hundreds of reasons why people vote yes or no. Their reasoning does not change the result.

    Your question is a form of a non-polar content question or a “wh-question” which use interrogative words that mostly start with wh- (using who, what,where, when, why, how ect.) These questions do not restrict the range of answers to two alternatives and a more specific response is required. It would not be appropriate to write a ballot question this way.

    For reference on this: [edit]

    And the correct answer to your question would be “I have never beat my wife.” There is not a choice involved in a response to your question.

  10. By DrData
    August 16, 2012 at 10:31 am | permalink

    @Diane First, the example I presented is a loaded question, which often has a “yes” “no” choice so it can be considered a polar question.

    And, just because a question can be presented as a polar question does not mean that it is a poorly framed question because it is ignoring underlying complexity.

    Imagine that the city put to a vote whether or not voters are in favor of the Fuller Road transit project. Some may be willing to sell parkland but think the idea of commuter rail is ludicrous. Others may be in favor of the idea of a transit station but don’t want to allow the city to use parkland for non-recreational purposes, etc.

    Most people can go ahead and weigh these options and make a “yes” “no” choice, but why put forth such garbled choices. It is much better to make the choice clean by getting rid of the “Percent for Art” program first and then give voters the choice of funding public art.

  11. By Diane
    August 16, 2012 at 11:31 am | permalink

    My entire point is that the question should not be loaded or expanded upon with other issues. A single ballot proposal question cannot and should not cover every possibility that can occur. It is a snapshot of a choice being offered. A choice that asks for agreement or disagreement. It is not asking why, or what alternatives one would prefer, just simple yes or no, agree or disagree.

    A question that says (to paraphrase) ‘Do you want to pay a tax for public art while if approved will inactivate the collection from the other sources’ means simply that. This does not show what people think about the current system…being for or against it. A yes vote says they prefer a tax to the current system. It is not asking about HOW they feel about the current system. You may want to ask that, but that is not the proposed question before the voter.

    I think the choice is clean (to use your wording)as it is stated in the article (although I have not seen the final version that will go to council). Personally, I feel the question would be too ambiguous to simply ask “do you support funding public art?” without specification about how the city would fund it (a tax). I also think it is very presumptuous of you to assume that there aren’t people who might prefer the current system to a tax. If the ballot proposal does not pass, the issue will then be to question what the no vote meant (no to just the tax or no to all funding of public art).

    Over thinking the question causes confusion. The city needs to just ask a simple question and then go from there. It is not a perfect world, and a ballot proposal can only get an answer to one issue at a time.

  12. By abc
    August 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm | permalink

    I cannot get over the irony that overthinking a question is being debated when that question is intended to revise an ordinance that was underthought 5 or 6 years ago. Had the original ordinance been thought about more, and its limitations understood and communicated when it was conceived, we would not have people arguing, 5 years later, over whether, or not, the current ordinance could support performance art, local artists, artist-in-residency programs, etc, etc. Many of the reports on AAPAC meetings include board members comments that reflect that even they do not understand the limits of the current ordinance.

    I realize my commnent is not contributing to the debate so please forgive my non sequitur.

  13. August 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | permalink

    0.1 mills does not sound exhorbitant as a price to pay for public art, but I am not sure I want the city government to administer the funds.

    Think how much more efficient that the library system is in building small arts programs, like their new circulating musical instruments collection, within their existing millage.

    I’d much rather support human scale hands on arts programming than find high maintenance monumental sculpture. At this point, I can’t tell if the proposed millage

  14. August 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm | permalink


    … can’t tell if the proposed millage makes the focus on human-scale art better or worse.

  15. By Rick Cronn
    August 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm | permalink

    Mr Vielmetti, FTW.

    Was doing anything other than producing physical art in public places ever discussed by the committee?

    Public Art has yet to be fully explained or explored in Ann Arbor.

  16. By abc
    August 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm | permalink

    Art has yet to be fully explained or (fully) explored… anywhere.

    Isn’t that wonderful.

    Don’t hold your breath Mr. Cronn; it won’t happen in your lifetime.

  17. By John Floyd
    August 17, 2012 at 11:43 pm | permalink

    @ 16 ABC:


  18. By Tom Whitaker
    August 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm | permalink

    Anyone catch today’s where CM Taylor says he will “strive to interpret” the results of the art millage vote with respect to what it says about voter’s feelings about the current art program? This is the same CM Taylor who was aghast that a citizen activist, who has worked on several grassroots campaigns regarding the disposition of parkland, would dare presume to know what voters were thinking when they approved the parkland sale amendment. I guess the privilege of interpreting voter intent depends on which team you’re on…

    ‘Hieftje and Taylor both said they’re confident the public art tax will pass in November, but if it doesn’t, they’re willing to acknowledge that the voters have spoken and they’ll take a careful look at the Percent For Art Program at that point.

    Taylor said he wasn’t willing to promise he’d introduce legislation to eliminate the program if voters say no to public art in November, though.

    “A no vote can mean a number of different things,” he said. “A loss by a single vote may mean one thing. A loss by a landslide could mean something else. And I think it’s important that we wait and see what the voters have to say and then strive to interpret that accordingly.”‘

  19. August 21, 2012 at 8:14 pm | permalink

    I read that and am not sure how to interpret it.

    If I am sincere in my previous statements, I would welcome votes for a millage (and be one myself). But CM Taylor seems to be inviting us to defeat it by overwhelming proportions. Or does he? If we don’t like the Percent for Art program, would a vote against the millage be interpreted as a vote for Percent for Art?

    This is by no means a “clean” vote.

  20. By Alan Goldsmith
    August 22, 2012 at 11:02 am | permalink

    There should have been a straight up/down yes/not public vote option on the Per Cent For Art Program on day one. There wasn’t. Both the new millage AND the Per Cent program should be voter options in November. Once again, City Council reps are making the issue a muddy one and there is no clear direction where the money will go if the vote in November is passed. This “strive to interpret” jive talk is more of the same that was soundly rejected in the August primary. I suggest Council members who continue in that tradition rethink this line of logic in light of the primary results. On this and scores of other subjects.

  21. By Bil Mundus
    September 14, 2012 at 6:50 pm | permalink

    I am writing as one who has created and donated several decorative
    objects to the city. If they are “art”,or not,is in the eye of the beholder.The city left them on display and the news was not deluged with letters.
    I believe the current hubbub is due to the following:
    1. The bronze surf board @ $800.000.00 is way too much for a
    questionable fountain in a bad location.
    2. $150,000.00 for a ceiling fixture INSIDE the building? That is not public. Council, get the committee out of the clouds.