Ann Arbor’s Public Art Saga Continues

Four separate agenda items related to public art received action by the Ann Arbor city council at its Feb. 18, 2014 meeting – but three of those actions were to postpone. The end result was that no Percent for Art money was transferred from the public art fund back to its funds of origin.

Back on the council’s March 3 agenda will be two resolutions – or possibly just one – that would make such a fund transfer. Also back on March 3 will be a resolution extending the part-time public art administrator’s contract for six months and appropriating $18,500 for that purpose.

The council’s actions on Feb. 18 began with final approval to an amendment to the city’s public art ordinance. That amendment allowed the council to transfer money accumulated through the now demised Percent for Art program back to the funds from which that money was drawn. Those funds include street millage funds, sanitary sewer funds, stormwater funds and the like. That ordinance amendment passed on a 10-0 vote. Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) was absent from the 11-member council. The council had given initial approval to the ordinance amendment at its Feb. 3, 2014 meeting.

Any actual transfer of funds, however, required separate council action, with support from an eight-vote majority. Two different resolutions had been placed on the agenda addressing a fund transfer of money out of the public art fund. The first was sponsored by Jane Lumm (Ward 2), joined by Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Jack Eaton (Ward 4), and Mike Anglin (Ward 5), and the second by Sabra Briere (Ward 1). The council ultimately postponed action on both resolutions.

The council flipped the order of the resolution at the start of the meeting, when the agenda was approved. So Briere’s resolution was considered first. A key difference between the two resolutions was the amount to be transferred: Lumm’s resolution specified a $819,005 transfer while Briere’s specified $957,140. The increased amount in Briere’s proposal was based on canceling a stalled public art project at Argo Cascades.

At the start of the council’s Feb. 18 meeting, the balance of unassigned funds accrued in the Percent for Art fund was $839,507. An additional $535,853 was earmarked for three projects that are underway: artwork at East Stadium bridges ($385,709), a rain garden at Kingsley and First ($7,009), and at Argo Cascades ($143,134). [.pdf of financial summary] A breakdown of the amounts that could be returned – and the funds of origin for the money – is covered here: [Art budget summary]

Another key element from Briere’s resolution was based on the council’s June 3, 2013 action to eliminate the Percent for Art funding mechanism, which also included a provision for a new approach to a public art program. The Percent for Art funding mechanism required 1% of all capital fund project budgets to be set aside for public art. The new approach enacted by the council last year can include city-funded art when it’s designed as an integral part of a capital project, as well as projects funded through a combination of private and public money.

So the resolution put forward by Briere included an instruction to the city administrator to direct city staff to develop a transition plan to be implemented by staff and the public art commission. It directed that plan to be presented to the council in about a year – before March 2, 2015. Briere’s resolution also directed the city administrator to establish a budget for public art administration for both the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years. [An initial list of requests from department heads for FY 2015, released by the city on Feb. 10, shows an $80,000 request for arts administration, which includes funds for a full-time art administrator, drawn from the general fund. FY 2015 runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015.]

Lumm and Kailasapathy felt the direction to establish a budget was too vague and they were not prepared to support the resolution on that basis.

When the roll call vote on postponement was taken,  Margie Teall (Ward 4) hesitated for several seconds before casting the final and deciding vote for postponement of Briere’s resolution to the council’s March 3 meeting. The other five votes for postponement were from Briere, Sally Petersen (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5), and mayor John Hieftje.  In Taylor’s absence neither resolution had a realistic chance of meeting the eight-vote requirement for approval.

Those in favor of postponing Briere’s resolution instead of seeing it be defeated were unwilling to support Lumm’s resolution because it did not provide a clear plan or a path for transition to the new public art program. As councilmembers recognized that Lumm’s resolution did not have adequate support to pass, they voted unanimously to postpone it until March 3. That ended the debate on a comparatively calm tone, after featuring some sharp exchanges between Briere and Lumm.

The two councilmembers had been at odds earlier in the meeting over an affordable housing resolution (which was ultimately postponed) – which Lumm had not wanted placed on the agenda until March 3. Indications were that a single public art resolution might be crafted for the March 3 meeting, instead of putting both forward again. That drew some interest from Kunselman, who had stated early in deliberations that he would be voting against both resolutions. He floated the idea that if a single resolution were brought forward, he might lend it his support. Kunselman’s view of the matter was that establishing a budget for a transition and transferring funds  was best addressed as part of the annual budget process. The council adopts the next year’s fiscal budget at its second meeting in May.

In its final public art-related action on Feb. 18, the council reconsidered a resolution defeated at its Feb. 3 meeting – to extend the contract for the part-time public art administrator by six months and to appropriate funds to cover that $18,500 contract. The result of that council vote on Feb. 3 was that public art administrator Aaron Seagraves could not be paid. The council’s unanimous vote on Feb. 18 was to postpone the question until March 3.

The reconsideration of the contract extension at the Feb. 18 meeting was the result of political bargaining. That reconsideration had originally been based on whether there would be a successful vote to transfer Percent for Art money back to its funds of origin. But based on the way the debate on the two resolutions evolved, Eaton made a motion for reconsideration near the end of the meeting – with the understanding that would be immediately postponed.

The art administrator’s contract was first considered at the council’s Jan. 21, 2014 meeting, but was postponed in the context of a political horse trade – support for the administrator’s contract being contingent on beginning a process to transfer money accumulated under Percent for Art in previous years, back to the money’s funds of origin.

The Feb. 18 meeting also featured public commentary in support of public art funding from several speakers, including Margaret Parker, former chair of the Ann Arbor public art commission, and Bob Miller, the commission’s current chair. Parker referred to “negative city councilmembers” who say no to everything. Directing her comments at some councilmembers who say they’re in favor of public art, Parker asked, “Who can believe you?” Miller told councilmembers that the commission represents the council’s goals and direction. Another speaker, Dave Olson, read aloud from a statement that has been circulated in the arts community and that was signed by about 25 people advocating for a  sustainable art program.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron.