Taxes for Art (II)

Photo by John Weise (with permission)

As we said in our previous post, there are three problems with Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program.

1. It is almost certainly illegal.

2. It is based on a false premise.

3. It erodes the public trust in government.

The previous post, Taxes for Art, laid out in detail what the arguments are for the program’s illegality. Now what about the other two points?

The premise

All along, we’ve heard a lot of starry-eyed rhetoric about the role of art in life and our community. Margaret Parker, quoted in the Michigan Daily, says “You don’t just stay alive by just by having a job…You need the things that feed your spirit and your soul.”  (Parker was the founding chair of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission (AAPAC) and, as explained by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the creator of a piece of public art herself.)  And who can argue with that? Enjoyment of art in its various forms certainly rates as one of the top quality-of-life indicators, right along with green open spaces and the ability to move about freely by foot, bike, or bus.

Unfortunately, this pure enjoyment of art seems not to be the prime motivation for establishing the program.  Instead, it is seen as an economic benefit.  The stimulation of “economic activity” is embedded in the ordinance as a benefit. But how does that work?  Does the presence of art make entrepreneurial juices run faster?  Perhaps.  But the point appears to be a matter of branding.  This has specifically been called out in various Council discussions.  An example (but by far not the only one) was CM Christopher Taylor’s comment nearly two years ago when the Council considered reducing the percentage amount going to the program, as reported in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Taylor said that,

…”cultural leadership is an important element of the Ann Arbor brand and that it was important to reinforce that brand and expand it. “

Art has sadly become what I call a “bumper sticker” theme in the effort to explain what makes Ann Arbor special.  You know, if you support a cause and put on a bumper sticker with a 3–7 word phrase showing that you are on the side of the good guys, then you’re done.  We have a number of these code words that serve to show that Ann Arbor is just the coolest place possible.   Why, we win awards because we are so cool!  Or sometimes we are just considered for awards, and we’re proud of that too.  The “Ann Arbor brand” is an important selling point for SPARK (Ann Arbor, USA is actually the entire county) and Art (definitely capitalized) is part of that.

Unfortunately, we have fallen into a trap of believing that we can capture Art as a civic virtue by symbolizing it.  The most egregious examples of this are the “Art” bicycle racks installed around the downtown.  The word “art” in a bike rack is not Art.  This is the trap that S.I. Hayakawa cautioned against.  “The symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory.We cannot be about Art as a community simply by public proclamation.

Bicycle rack, Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, from the DDA Facebook page

The use of symbolism via bike racks has now progressed to a triple-threat series of vegetable bike racks near the Farmers’ Market.  It’s about Art!  It’s about Alternative (Nonmotorized) Transportation! It’s about Local Food!  (To my knowledge, the bike racks are not paid for through the Percent for Art program; I think the DDA commissioned them.)

If the bike racks are not Art, what is?  To my mind, the photo by John Weise at the top of this article gets there.  It is pleasing to look at, and by drawing an actual artwork and the UM art museum through the bike rack, it makes what might be a wry commentary.  (I don’t know what the actual intent of the photographer was.)

Art should be, first, a creative expression that begins from an inner vision of the artist.  It should communicate at some level with the viewer, and perhaps evoke a response.  And it is often valued because it is decorative, though if it is “only” decoration,  many would not qualify that as art.  (And some art is not particularly pretty.)

Here is a little poem I wrote on contemplating a purchase from Art Fair.  I think it expresses some aspects of how we have different personal responses to art.

Art and the Ultimate, © Vivienne N. Armentrout 2011

But aside from any experiences we have with art as individuals, what should we wish from a public art program? (Note that this does not apply to the performing arts, as Percent for Art does not.)

Here is my short list.

  • Public art should encourage a wide enjoyment of art.
  • It should be either very long-lasting or deliberately ephemeral.  (Tatty old art is not attractive.)
  • It is a plus if it is interactive in some way, so that it can be actively enjoyed.  (Generations have loved the Cube.)
  • It should help to support a community of artistic endeavor, including both professionals and amateurs.
  • It should evoke a distinct response from the viewer, whether awe, laughter, or simple enjoyment of beauty.
  • It should avoid being institutional or propagandistic in nature (a frequent flaw of public art everywhere).

In other words, it should serve both to draw the greater community into an awareness and enjoyment of art, and simultaneously foster the ability of local artists to display and profit from their work.  There is a program of public art in Michigan that does all that.  It is called ArtPrize and it happens in Grand Rapids.  For a good discussion of how that can be experienced, see the Chronicle’s account of a few years back.   But this enormously successful program is privately financed.

So what do we have as good examples of public art?  There are a number of permanent installations around town (all bought by donations), leaning heavily to the sculpture side (after all, that lasts well).  The UM campus has a huge number of these.  A catalog of all these is beyond the scope of this blog. I have my favorites, including both the mosaic and the pottery artworks on the Fourth and Washington parking structure.  (Purchased with private donations.)

Chalk drawing by David Zinn. Photo by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle

But there is also a refreshing spring of artistic playfulness bubbling up from Ann Arbor soil.  A prime example is Festifools, rapidly becoming a tradition. It is held around April 1 and is a procession down Main Street of street puppets made by volunteers. This year they added a sister event, Fool Moon.  A search will yield you many pictures and videos, including this excellent photoessay by Ryan Stanton.  This wonderful community event is funded by donations (they once asked for Percent for Art money but were refused).  Recently, David Zinn (whose drawings on newsletters, programs, and other publications are familiar to anyone who has been alive in Ann Arbor for very long) has been bestowing some wonderful flights of whimsy on us via chalk paintings on Ann Arbor Streets, most of which use a 3-D trompe l’oeil effect.  (For more about Zinn’s art, see his website, which includes a notice of his recent book Random, Unprovoked Acts of Temporary Art.)

This certainly isn’t all there is to public art, but it provides a powerful counterpoint to a process that so far has produced a widely derided water sculpture in front of city hall (which will have to be turned off for the winter immediately after dedication, I’ve heard) and some metal trees in a park.  The proposed art for Fuller Road Station is to be even more institutional, panels showing bicycles, buses and trains, as specified by the project’s architect.  See AAPAC’s annual report for a full description of these projects.

To return to the point made in the beginning: the Percent for Art program was founded on the premise that it can somehow capture the quality of art as a facet of our community, and thus serve as an effective marketing tool.  As Margaret Parker said, in arguing for approval of the Dreiseitl project after some difficulties,  “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.” (By permanent, Parker means that the sculpture will be in place all year round, not just during a festival.)  But the program seems to be headed toward monumentalism instead, with artworks installed to make an institutional statement rather than evoking any true community aesthetic.

“Monument” by Theo M. Nix

Note: Theo M. Nix was my father.

UPDATE: The opening for the Dreiseitl water sculpture is October 4, 2011.  We’ll finally have a chance to see how it measures up to expectations.

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3 Comments on “Taxes for Art (II)”

  1. […] 2011, I wrote a three-part series on the Percent for Art program.  (Part I Part II Part […]

  2. […] of these racks can be found in cities and towns across the country, with examples including a u-rack shaped as a carrot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a u-rack shaped as a bicycle in Brookline, […]

  3. Bryan Says:

    Well I for one like these “artistic” bike racks, even if they are not Art. They are fun and (hopefully) are not much more expensive than a regular bike rack. I found a nice collection of “artistic” or maybe just decorative bike racks around the country:

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