Pay Taxes, Buy Art
Cities use your money to pay for a lot of things--including works of art.
Thursday, October 7, 1999
How much would you pay for a 7-foot-long bronze sculpture of a mama grizzly bear? Say we throw in two cubs. How does $95,000 sound?
That''s what the city of Monterey is paying East Coast artist Kris Swanson for her portrait-in-metal of the critter that appears on California''s state seal. Swanson''s piece will be installed on city hall''s front lawn by next September, in time for the state''s 150th birthday. And, if you''re a Monterey resident, you helped pay for it.
Before you fly off the handle, why shouldn''t the government buy art? Cities use tax dollars for everything they do, from buying bullets for police guns to buying books for schools. And one of the functions more citizens are demanding from local governments, beyond keeping the peace and teaching our kids, is making their community a nicer, more beautiful place to live. Funding public art is one way to do that.
Don''t start painting protest signs yet. Funding for public art doesn''t cut very deeply into government budgets. In some cities, it doesn''t exist at all. Salinas, for instance, has no arts commission (though one is in the works) and formally earmarks no money for public art.
What little money cities do invest in art seems to be well spent. Carmel''s Committee for Art in Public Places, though not regularly funded, plans to put $14,000 towards a piece of art for Sunset Center. The group also catalogs the city''s vast art holdings at the library, Sunset Center, and city hall.
Seaside and Pacific Grove, which annually spend $4,000 and $9,500, respectively, use most of their budgets for youth-oriented projects--such as P.G.''s annual children''s arts festival--rather than on specific pieces to showcase publicly. Seaside Arts Commission Chair Sandra Gray wants to change that, and is pushing the city to adopt a public-art policy based on ones in San Diego and San Jose. "People call us all the time, wanting to donate things, and there''s no procedure in place for the city to follow," Gray says. "Right now, they''re just winging it."
Among local cities, Monterey is the most generous arts patron, laying out $25,000 a year to acquire art. Two-grand of that went towards "Planetary Tidepool," a 13-foot sculpture installed this week in Custom House Plaza as part of the city''s sesquicentennial exhibit to be unveiled this Saturday. The eye-catching work by Monterey Bay Sculptors, Inc. features a large globe of swirling, cast-bronze kelp fronds, complete with a fountain and a 150-foot pathway of "golden" bricks. Artists value the entire Custom House installation at $240,000, but they''ve only asked for $50,000 in construction and material costs to be covered.
What happens when citizens don''t like their representatives'' taste in art?
A sculpture installed several years ago at the city''s sculpture park across from Monterey City Hall led a few people to kick up some dust, but it was moved when the area was razed for the city''s new Frances Adler Elkins sculpture park. Displaying public art temporarily--not unlike a gallery--is one way of dealing with disgruntled viewers. "We can rotate things through," says Monterey Cultural Arts Manager Marty Pike, "and if they''re controversial, out they go anyway."
In Seaside, some residents were alarmed that a city-installed sculpture near Broadway, intended to represent life emerging from a cocoon, instead looked like a lynching. In this case the sculpture remained up for its scheduled display period.
Generally speaking, local governments buy art with a strong educational focus, the thinking being that it''s easier to justify spending tax dollars on projects that benefit children. When a Monterey committee reviewed two finalists in its grizzly bear competition last week, panelists said they wanted the winning piece to resonate with young minds. Children should be able to touch the work, they said, while learning that real-life bears can be dangerous.
One commissioner also dreamed out loud about "busloads of tourists coming to see the bears." They may have been less eager to spend $95,000 on a large, abstract piece; indeed, all nine grizzly proposals were highly representational.
The Custom House installation also has a strong educational element. On the path leading to the fountain, four 7-foot-tall stelae display artifacts (newspaper articles and photographs, mainly) describing Monterey''s early history.
Creating artist Tibor Hajagos says that while the sculpture''s educational purpose is important, the fact that several government agencies pooled their resources is a message in and of itself--one that speaks to the importance of art in our society.
"We''re doing this to provide a statement, that large-scale public sculpture has a vital role to play in Monterey County," Hajagos says. "It''s a wake-up call."