Members of the local artistic community are rushing to the defense of Minneapolis’ public art program after learning that Mayor Betsy Hodges has proposed no new funding for it in her 2015 budget.

The proposal to drop funding for next year’s program is without precedent in recent history, advocates say, which will likely prompt a discussion at the City Council about the value of spending city money on public art.

The mayor’s office said the decision was the result of a backlog of projects that haven’t been completed and the intent is to resume funding the program in the future.

The city has in recent years set aside between $203,000 and $605,000 for art in public places, spending that has occasionally drawn scorn from Republicans at the state Legislature looking to highlight government waste.

Examples of recent public art projects include a redesigned 3rd Avenue bridge over Interstate 94 featuring a beacon that glows at night, as well as a multicolored light installation at a new apartment complex at 46th Street and Hiawatha Avenue. The money funds both the installation of new projects, which can take several years to materialize, and preservation of existing artworks.

Council Member Kevin Reich, who represents Northeast’s robust arts community, plans to fight for the money.

“The amount we can discuss … To zero it out, to flatline it, that basically says we turn our back to it and don’t value it,” Reich said. “I strongly value it.”

The mayor’s office notes that there is a remaining balance of $890,000 leftover from past allocations, enough to cover several years of typical funding. The mayor’s deputy chief of staff Ben Hecker said the mayor’s office is committed to funding the program again beginning in 2016, however.

“It’s basically just a matter of bringing their annual year-over-year authorization closer to their ability to actually get projects out the door,” Hecker said.

Noel Raymond, chair of the city’s Arts Commission, said the leftover money is already committed.

“It looks like there’s a lot of money held over from previous years, but it’s all dedicated to specific projects,” Raymond said. “So no money in the budget for next year means no new projects and no conservation.”

Public arts administrator Mary Altman said some of the ongoing projects include a bridge railing on Olson Hwy. in north Minneapolis, public art on Nicollet Avenue, restoring a small pavilion in Powderhorn Park, and identifying historic sculptures needing conservation in the city’s parks.

Small budget gets smaller

Minneapolis’ allocation is typically tied to the amount of debt the city issues, which fluctuates. But that is tradition rather than set in ordinance. St. Paul passed an ordinance in 2009 that requires one percent of the money spent on eligible public projects to be used for art, and requires artists to be involved in the design process. Other cities have more stringent guidelines.

“If you look at public art budgets in other cities of comparable sizes, it’s a pretty small budget,” Altman said of Minneapolis’ allocation.

Jack Becker, the St. Paul-based publisher of Public Art Review, said public art is an integral component to a city’s identity. He noted that art is often what people remember when they travel to other cities.

“These icons [in other cities] weren’t just some accident; they were through some desire for cities to claim and identify their culture and have it manifested through something physical in the built environment,” Becker said. He compared it to the value of parks, which provide a quality of life benefit that is hard to quantify.

“You want to have parks in your life,” Becker said. “You want to have art in your life.”

Public art has not been without controversy, however. Former Mayor R.T. Rybak garnered criticism in 2008 after spending an average of $47,000 apiece on four artist-designed water fountains. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty cited them as proof that local officials could absorb more state aid cuts during the recession.

Rybak later jabbed the art community for not coming to his defense. “If there’s a nickel of public money in it, I need your vocal support in doing that and you should be pushing us to do more,” he told a crowd in 2011.

 

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