Council’s Public Art Committee Begins Work

Ideas for future of Ann Arbor's public art program include public/private partnerships, new nonprofit; plans in works to seek AG opinion

Ann Arbor city council public art committee meeting (Dec. 11, 2012): The city council committee tasked with making recommendations on the future of Ann Arbor’s public art program met for the first time this month. Committee members began exploring the question of continued city funding for public art. They’re starting to think about ways for the city to fund art that are different from the current mechanism.

Christopher Taylor, Margie Teall, Ann Arbor city council, Ann Arbor public art, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor city councilmembers Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) at the first meeting of the council’s public art committee on Dec. 11. Other members are Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3). (Photos by the writer.)

The group consists of councilmembers Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3). They’d been appointed at the city council’s Dec. 3 meeting, when the council also voted to halt the spending of funds accumulated through Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program  – except for projects that are already underway. The moratorium on spending lasts until April 1, 2013.

The committee was asked to recommend amendments to the city’s public art program, and make those recommendations to the council by Feb. 15, 2013. Among the possibilities the task force is expected to consider is a complete repeal of the current program, perhaps to be replaced with an alternative.

Peterson – the newest councilmember on the committee, who was elected on Nov. 6 – brought to the Dec. 11 meeting a draft survey for residents, to help clarify public sentiment about using city funds for public art. She noted that the outcome of a public art millage, which was defeated by about 56% of voters on Nov. 6, didn’t directly measure how people felt about the public funding of art. The four-year millage would have temporarily replaced the current Percent for Art program, which sets aside 1% of each city capital project to use for public art.

But other committee members – particularly Teall and Kunselman – expressed little enthusiasm for a survey, although the group agreed to bring back other ideas for public outreach to their next meeting.

Much of the committee’s discussion focused on exploring other funding options. Taylor suggested the possibility of a new nonprofit, which could help secure more private funding. He said he’s already been communicating with the city attorney’s office about this option. It was Taylor who had brought forward the millage proposal this summer, to the surprise of many in the local arts community. The arts community was unsuccessful in its efforts to urge the city council not to put the proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The committee set its next meeting for Monday, Jan. 7 at 5:30 p.m. – before to the 7 p.m. city council meeting. Before then, committee members agreed to work on several tasks, including gathering information about how other communities handle funding for public art. And Kunselman plans to draft a resolution for the council to make a request of the state attorney general’s office – likely via state Rep. Jeff Irwin – for an opinion about the legality of Ann Arbor’s current approach.

The Dec. 11 meeting also was attended by two members of the Ann Arbor public art commission – Marsha Chamberlin, AAPAC’s chair, and John Kotarski – as well as Aaron Seagraves, the city’s part-time public art administrator. [For a report on the most recent meeting of the public art commission, see: “Public Art Commission Eyes Uncertain Future.”]

This report begins with some background on Ann Arbor Percent for Art program, then summarizes the wide-ranging Dec. 11 committee discussion and possible next steps.

Background: Funding of Public Art

The Ann Arbor city council enacted a public art ordinance in late 2007, setting up a Percent for Art program as a funding mechanism. For each of the city’s capital projects, 1% of the budget – up to a cap of $250,000 – is set aside for public art. [.pdf of public art ordinance] Because funding comes from capital projects, the artwork must be linked thematically to the fund paying for the project. For example, artwork funded with money from street projects must have some kind of transportation theme, or be located along the street. Another consequence of capital-project-based funding is that artwork must be permanent, which excludes temporary installations or performing arts.

The art projects paid for with this funding are overseen by the Ann Arbor public art commission, a nine-member volunteer advisory group to the city council. Its first project, a water sculpture designed by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl and installed in the city hall’s outdoor plaza, drew criticism for the cost – over $750,000 – and the fact that a non-local artist was selected for the effort.

AAPAC has also been under pressure because of the relatively small number of projects it has completed. In addition to the Dreiseitl work, there are only two other finished projects: metal tree sculptures at West Park, and a mural at Allmendinger Park. However, AAPAC members have stressed the long-term nature of these projects, especially when getting a new program started, and note that several other efforts are underway. Those include: (1) a $150,000 hanging glass sculpture by Ed Carpenter, to be installed in the Justice Center lobby this spring; (2) artwork for a new rain garden being built at Kingsley & First next spring, with a $27,000 budget; (3) public art for the East Stadium bridges, with a $400,000 budget; and (4) $150,000 for artwork at Argo Cascades.

Current AAPAC members are Connie Rizzolo Brown, Marsha Chamberlin, Tony Derezinski, Cathy Gendron, John Kotarski, Bob Miller, Wiltrud Simbuerger, and Malverne Winborne. There is one vacancy, due to the recent resignation of Theresa Reid. The Percent for Art funds also pay for a part-time public art administrator, Aaron Seagraves. He is the second person to hold that position, and was hired in May 2011.

As the city has struggled in recent years with declining revenues – and as the Percent for Art program has faced criticism for various reasons – there have been several attempts to scale back the program.  Those efforts include some formal proposals by councilmembers to cut the percentage of funding for public art to a half percent. However, none of those efforts were supported by a majority of councilmembers.

Most recently, in August of 2012 – eight weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, and to the surprise of many leaders in the local arts community – councilmember Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) brought forward a proposal to put an 0.1 mill tax on the ballot. It would have raised $450,000 annually and served as an alternative, more flexible funding source for the Percent for Art program, which would have been suspended for the duration of the four-year millage.

But the millage was defeated, with 28,166 people (55.86%) voting against it and with support from 22,254 voters (44.14%).

In the wake of that defeat, at the city council’s Nov. 19, 2012 meeting, two proposals were considered that would have changed the public art program – one from Jane Lumm (Ward 2) that would have terminated it, and one from Sabra Briere (Ward 1) that would have narrowed the scope of qualifying projects. The practical impact of Briere’s proposal would be to reduce the amount of public art funding by about 90%. For the last two fiscal years, the Percent for Art program has generated roughly $300,000. If Briere’s proposed ordinance revisions had been in place, only about $25,000 would have been generated. [.jpg of chart showing public art allocations]

A third resolution, brought forward on Nov. 19 by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), was to appoint a committee to study the Percent for Art program and to halt the expenditure of funds currently allocated for public art, with exceptions for projects already underway.

All of these resolutions were postponed until the council’s Dec. 3 meeting, when councilmembers passed the proposal from Higgins and appointed the committee of five councilmembers: Briere, Taylor, Stephen Kunselman, Sally Petersen, and Margie Teall.

The resolution also halted the spending of funds accumulated through the Percent for Art program until April 1, 2013. Projects already approved – at the Justice Center, East Stadium Bridges, Argo Cascades, and the Kingsley & First rain garden – are exempted and will move ahead. The committee was asked to make recommendations about the program’s future by Feb. 15, 2013.

Currently there is a balance of about $1.5 million in the Percent for Art program. Of that, about $681,000 is unallocated.

Public Outreach

The discussion at the committee’s Dec. 11 meeting began with Sally Petersen putting forward a draft survey she’d compiled. The millage vote didn’t really indicate how people felt about the public funding of art, she noted. Anecdotally, people voted against the millage for a variety of reasons, she said: some wanted to keep the current Percent for Art program; some thought the millage would provide insufficient funding; some thought it would bring in too much money; and some felt there should not be any public funding for art.

Petersen’s draft survey had five questions. One question asked whether the city should be involved with art in public places – if the answer was no, the survey ended. If yes, then additional questions were asked about preferences for funding and administering such a program. [.pdf of Petersen's draft survey]

Herbert Dreiseitl, Ann Arbor Percent for Art, public art, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A work designed by the German sculptor Herbert Dreiseitl is integrated into the stormwater management system at city hall. The sculpture was paid for through the city’s Percent for Art program and was controversial in large part because of its cost, which exceeded $750,000.

Petersen explained that her intent was to keep the survey short and straightforward, so that the results could give the committee some initial direction. If 80% of respondents indicate that they don’t want the city to fund public art, “then our job’s kind of done,” she said.

Sabra Briere shared preliminary results of an online survey she’d already conducted among constituents, with a majority of the roughly 100 respondents indicating support for public funding of art. [Briere also included a bar chart of survey results in an email newsletter sent to constituents on Dec. 15, but indicated that she hadn't yet finished compiling the complete results.]

At the committee meeting, Margie Teall responded to the idea of a survey by saying she was skeptical of that approach. It’s a loaded issue, she said. She they’d be more likely to hear from people opposed to funding, rather than getting a reliable cross-section of opinion.

Stephen Kunselman also wasn’t enthusiastic about a survey, saying the council had already heard from a lot of people on this issue. As an elected body, the council needs to make some decisions, he said. “I don’t think we should govern by survey.”

Petersen indicated that a survey could at least provide some direction. At this point, there’s no set of consistent data to gauge public sentiment, she said.

Teall felt that the issue is subjective, and councilmembers are elected to make decisions like this. Echoing Kunselman, she said, “We’ve heard from a lot of people already.”

Briere noted that the community has had at least five years of discussion about public art. Although the Percent for Art program was formed in 2007, people didn’t really pay attention until the city went public with the Herbert Dreiseitl piece, she said. Briere added that she was personally uncomfortable asking people to continue with the Percent for Art program specifically, because only a few of the people she’s talked with actually understand how the program works.

Later in the meeting, Teall picked up that thread, saying she was concerned about doing public outreach unless there was an educational component, too.

But Briere felt that trying to educate people first would manipulate the outcome of an attempt to understand what people wanted. It’s important to understand what people don’t understand, she said. Briere noted that she’s heard from a lot of people with opinions, but primarily they’re responding to one piece – the work by Dreiseitl.

Petersen replied that it’s in part a public relations problem. She reported that for the record, she actually liked the Dreiseitl sculpture, but thought it was too small for that space. Teall noted that the city hadn’t been able to afford anything larger, adding that people also don’t understand that the Dreiseitl work is part of a larger system, which added to the expense. [The piece is connected to the stormwater management system at city hall, which includes a rain garden and underground cisterns.]

Defining the Problem

About midway into the Dec. 11 discussion, Sabra Briere pointed out that they hadn’t yet defined the problem they were trying to address. She referred to an exercise that councilmembers had conducted at a planning retreat the previous evening, which involved identifying the problems that the city needed to solve, as a way to help prioritize.

By way of background, the two questions councilmembers had tried to answer for their chosen priority areas were: (1) What is the problem we are solving? and (2) What does success look like?

Sally Petersen identified two problems. The city has a public art program that doesn’t seem to be working, she said, but the city also has a public relations problem.

Briere wondered what the problem was in 2006 that the city was trying to solve, which resulted in forming the Percent for Art program.

By way of background, Margie Teall is the only councilmember on the committee who had served on council when the public art ordinance was proposed. She served on a task force – appointed by the city council at its June 5, 2006 meeting – that led to establishing the Percent for Art program. Other task force members included Margaret Parker, a local artist who since 2002 had been a member of the Ann Arbor Commission on Art in Public Places (CAPP) – a group that pushed for public funding of art; Elaine Sims, another member of CAPP who is director of the University of Michigan Hospitals and Healthcare Centers Gifts of Art program; Jim Kosteva, UM’s director of community relations; and Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater.

The council eventually approved the public art ordinance in November 2007. Parker and Sims later were appointed to the Ann Arbor public art commission, an advisory group to oversee allocation of the Percent for Art funds. Their terms on AAPAC ended in 2011.

At the Dec. 11 committee meeting, Teall recalled the problem as it was conceived back in 2006: There was limited public art in Ann Arbor, beyond what was located on the University of Michigan campus. People would donate art to the city, or art would be included in projects like the Fourth & Washington parking structure – which was built by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. But there was no coordination and no permanent funding source, Teall said.

Ann Arbor was “light years behind other cities” in terms of public art, Teall said. So the problem had been to address the need for a public art program. She said that the recommendation for the Percent for Art program had been brought forward by Sue McCormick, who at that time was the city’s public services administrator.

Briere observed that there had been no mention of a Percent for Art program by the city council as a body until a recommendation to establish the program was introduced. “So we’re playing catch-up when we talk about community outreach,” she said. [Briere did not serve on the council at that time, but attended council meetings. She was first elected in November of 2007, and took office just after the Percent for Art program was approved.]

Taylor commented that now, the problem is that the city doesn’t have the kind of public art program that it wants. Peterson asked, “What is the program we want?” “Exactly,” Taylor replied.

Kunselman felt the problem is that people don’t have confidence in the funding mechanism, and they don’t have confidence in the type of art that’s being proposed. To Kunselman, decorative manhole covers are not art.

Defining the Problem: Funding Sources

Briere felt the problem isn’t the process. “It’s frankly how much money the system has received.” She noted that in the past, there have been various proposals by councilmembers to limit the amount – cutting the program to a half percent, for example. But none of those efforts were supported by a majority of council.

Sabra Briere, Sally Petersen, Ann Arbor city council, Percent for Art, public art, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: City councilmembers Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Sally Petersen (Ward 2). In the background is Marsha Chamberlin, chair of the Ann Arbor public art commission.

Teall pointed out that the funding won’t always be at the level of recent years – it depends on the number and kind of capital projects that the city is undertaking in any given year. That’s true, Briere replied, but the fact is that there’s political pressure now – because of the amount of money that’s in the Percent for Art budget. She didn’t want to rush AAPAC to spend the money, but it’s an issue, Briere said.

Petersen ventured that art will happen in Ann Arbor, regardless of public funding. Her comment echoed the sentiment she’d expressed at the Nov. 19 city council meeting: “[A]rt happens in Ann Arbor; every single day, art happens.” At the committee meeting, Teall replied, ”I think that’s a leap.”

In response, Petersen listed several arts and cultural events that don’t involve city funding, including the annual art fairs, Ann Arbor Summer Festival, the FestiFools parade, and performances sponsored by the University Musical Society and other organizations.

Petersen said she worried that the failed millage vote was an indication that people don’t want the city to fund public art. She said she didn’t agree with that sentiment, but she was afraid that’s what the vote meant.

Teall said that continued financial support for public art might not be popular, but she wondered what Petersen was afraid of. Petersen replied that she was afraid the council would be accused of not listening to what people wanted. That’s why she felt it was important to get a clearer understanding from residents – either through a survey, or public meetings, or a combination of feedback.

Kunselman didn’t feel additional input was necessary. He believes most people don’t object to some funding, but they want a more moderate level and a clear understanding of how the funding works and whether it’s legally legitimate. That’s why he supports Briere’s proposal to limit the sources of funding, and why he doesn’t support Jane Lumm’s proposal to eliminate the program entirely. It’s also important for the bureaucracy – “especially the lawyers” – to get out of the way, he added.

Teall and Taylor both noted that even though the millage failed, more than 20,000 people voted in favor of it.

Options for Funding Public Art

Interspersed throughout the meeting were ideas about other possible approaches to funding public art.

Options: Altering the Percent for Art Ordinance

As he has in the past, Stephen Kunselman questioned the appropriateness of using funds that were originally designated for infrastructure like roads or utilities, and setting aside some of those funds for public art. He said he’d like to see the Percent for Art structure continue, but not take funding from as many capital projects as it currently taps. That change alone would take away a lot of criticism about the program, he said.

Kunselman wants to pursue the strategy of asking the state attorney general’s office for an opinion about the legality of Ann Arbor’s current approach. [It's an issue he's raised at a previous city council meeting.  He has not taken any steps to ask for an AG opinion – as the request must come from a state legislator. The city attorney, Stephen Postema, has not publicly released any opinion on the issue, though he has provided such an opinion, in the form of an "advice memo," to councilmembers.] Kunselman said he planned to talk with state Rep. Jeff Irwin about it, and possibly bring forward a resolution to the council in January for a vote on making a formal request.

If the attorney general deems that the Percent for Art program is legal, Kunselman said, then that opens the door for other communities in Michigan to launch similar programs. Kunselman also complained that the city staff has given conflicting opinions about whether general fund dollars were used to fund public art, especially related to the hanging sculpture that’s been commissioned for the lobby of the Justice Center.

Kunselman also felt that the current program’s “bureaucracy” should be simplified. City staff can’t account for how the money is handled, he contended. He pointed to the change in the definition of what counts as a capital improvement as it relates to eligibility for the Percent for Art, which has increased the number of projects that generate public art funds. He wondered who has been making these policy decisions, noting that it’s not something initiated by the city council.

Options: Creating a Nonprofit

Christopher Taylor noted that the committee’s charge is to look at whether the current program is “susceptible to change” or should be left as is. He believed that the council is operating with the assumption that public art is worth some kind of funding. The committee can accept as a given, he added, that the current program “has operational and foundational complications which inhibit the city’s ability to realize the program we all want.” He preferred that the committee focus on exploring different ways of handling the program.

Asked by Sally Petersen what that might mean, Taylor said there might be other opportunities for city funding. There might be the possibility of “cultivating a nonprofit de novo,” he said – that is, forming a new nonprofit to serve as a public/private partnership for creating public art in Ann Arbor.

When asked by Margie Teall how such a nonprofit would be funded, Taylor replied that this same question would be asked no matter what approach they pursued using public dollars. The advantage of a nonprofit, he said, is that it could more credibly seek private funding. “That’s one notion I’ve heard in the space,” he said, “and I assume there are other possibilities.”

Taylor indicated that he already has communicated with Christopher Frost of the city attorney’s office about the possibility of forming a nonprofit.

There was some discussion about whether any existing nonprofit – like the Arts Alliance, a consortium of arts and cultural groups in Washtenaw County – could fill this role. But committee members seemed to feel that none of the existing nonprofits had a mission that would lend itself to this type of effort.

Briere suggested the possibility of establishing an endowment as a way to leverage private dollars. She noted that the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy set up a 501(c)3 so that it could accept donations through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. The Library Green group is trying to do the same thing, she noted, and it might be something to consider for public art, too.

Next Steps

Each councilmember on the committee took on a task to do before their next meeting. Christopher Taylor said he’d get more information about the possibility of forming a nonprofit to handle public art, working with the city attorney’s office. Margie Teall plans to gather research on public art programs in other communities. Marsha Chamberlin, chair of the Ann Arbor public art commission, offered to help with that effort, noting that the commission had already compiled a lot of information about other public art programs.

Sabra Briere and Sally Petersen both will work on the public outreach component, although it doesn’t appear the committee has interest in the kind of survey that Petersen proposed. Petersen reported that she and her Ward 2 colleague Jane Lumm are planning to hold a town hall meeting sometime in January, and could add the topic of public art funding to that agenda.

Stephen Kunselman plans to talk with state Rep. Jeff Irwin or state Sen. Rebekah Warren about their willingness to request an opinion from the Michigan attorney general about the legality of Ann Arbor’s current Percent for Art program. He intends to draft a resolution to bring to the council, possibly in January, that would formally make the request to Irwin or Warren.

The group also talked about bringing in people who are involved in the local arts community, but decided to wait until after the committee had met again and reviewed the information they’d be gathering.

The committee set its next meeting for Monday, Jan. 7 at 5:30 p.m. – before the 7 p.m. city council meeting.

Councilmembers present: Sabra Briere, Stephen Kunselman, Sally Petersen, Christopher Taylor, Margie Teall.

Also: Aaron Seagraves, the city’s public art administrator, and two members of the Ann Arbor public art commission: Marsha Chamberlin and John Kotarski.

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  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 17, 2012 at 10:34 am | permalink

    “Teall and Taylor both noted that even though the millage failed, more than 20,000 people voted in favor of it.”

    Brilliant logic.

  2. By Observatory
    December 19, 2012 at 9:58 am | permalink

    Not making this up: I would have sworn we’d already replaced both Teall and Taylor. They’re still HERE?

  3. December 19, 2012 at 10:28 am | permalink

    Re (2) Christopher Taylor was unopposed in the recent primary and election. I don’t recall his ever being challenged.

    Margie Teall trounced Jack Eaton in the primary by 18 votes.

    Here is the Chronicle’s excellent coverage of results in the primary. [link]

  4. By James Jefferson
    December 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm | permalink

    Ummm… what survey, Sabra? After contacting you by email, phone, and even in person I have yet to receive a newsletter, survey, or any other correspondence that was not in direct reply to a question. If you always survey the same handful of people that agree with you, I bet you will get the results you need every time. Thanks Chronicle what would we do without you? It IS like being there, but better.

  5. By Roger Kuhlman
    December 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm | permalink

    It is just flat out wrong to force all Ann Arbor taxpayers to pay for public art purchases through taxation. Why is it that left-wing Democrats always seem to be in favor of coerced funding from everyone in the city to benefit a few privileged special interests groups and city politicians who want expensive art festooning their government building so that they can feel more self-important and good about themselves?

  6. December 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm | permalink

    Re: #4:

    Dear Mr. Jefferson,

    I don’t have a record that you ever requested to be on my mailing list – and I try not to fill up folks’ email with unwanted communications.
    I don’t investigate the folks who’ve asked to be on the list, and I don’t solicit anyone to join the list. But if you want to see the newsletter, you can find it on my website ( If you like what you see, you can ask to join.
    I’m confident – having read the responses to various surveys in the past – that the folks on my email list don’t all agree with me on anything. (See message #5 for one of the folks on my list.)

  7. By Steve Bean
    December 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm | permalink

    Sabra, if it’s not a random sample, what good are the results?

  8. December 20, 2012 at 8:34 pm | permalink

    Re: #7

    Dear Steve,

    Opt-in surveys are never random samples.

    I use the results for information, not for predicting the future. I think of it as asking hundreds of people for their opinions.