It was a quiet morning at Lowry Central Bowler and Trophy Supplies. Zoe, an African grey parrot, made short work of a shoebox below a row of colorful bowling balls waiting to be customized with someone's name: "Shorty," maybe, or "Pinky."

Tom Reed, a proud engraver and the third owner of a business that has existed at Central and Lowry avenues since 1956, had just read that a new installation of art might be cancelled from his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood's tableau.

Facing budget woes and the spotlight of political symbolism, the City Council's spending committee recommended Monday that the plan to commission six artist-designed water fountains for sites around town be reduced to four, putting the savings of $134,000 back into the public art program.

Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed 10 fountains back in 2007 to showcase our art scene and promote city water. But times are tough, Rybak's running for bigger things, and opponents such as Marty Seifert will certainly use the issue to portray Rybak as a loose spender.

So, the council will vote on Friday whether to pare down to four the $50,000 fountains, leaving north Minneapolis and Reed's neighborhood without. When I asked Reed if his business would suffer, he offered a bemused smile.

"Ahhhh, probably not," he deadpanned. Alley owners say even bowling is way down, and a fountain, no matter how snazzy, probably wouldn't help.

"It would be nice to have," said Reed, who likes art. "But would I be willing to contribute? Not a chance."

I'm an art guy. Got original paintings and photos on nearly every wall of my home, including a painting of a gas station and a collage of drug dealers. Let's just say most were purchased after a couple of glasses of "free" wine at a showing.

Mannekin Pis and other greats

I've been to the great cities and seen the Trevi Fountain and Trafalgar Square, and soon I will go to Mexico City to view the incredible public murals. A few years ago I went to Brussels and saw a statue from the 1600s called "Mannekin Pis." It was a tiny statue of a tiny boy taking delight in, well, urinating into a pool.

This piece of public art has drawn millions of visitors for centuries, but no doubt there was a guy at the time (Marteen Seeferre?) who calculated how much gruel could be bought to feed the masses instead.

When average middle Americans think of public art, they see a giant, fat plastic guy waving a spoon outside a Happy Chef. Thus, the appetite for high aesthetic is low.

"It's just so easy to criticize," said Jack Becker, executive director of Forecast Public Art, a non-profit, and the city's first public-art czar back in the 1970s. "When a tourist drinks from an artist-designed fountain, that's what they take back with them, that this is a place that promotes art and culture. But artists have a hard time defending themselves because they are not starving children, not perceived as needed. "

In fact, some council members suggested the fountains rated somewhere below potholes in importance. There are days I tend to agree.

So, I decided to consult with Walt Dziedzic, Northeast's former council member and park board commissioner, and a plain-speaking social and arts commentator.

Dziedzic is all about public art, and he will quickly tell you that the neighborhood "Art-A-World" was created under his tenure. (Actually, it's "Art-a-Whirl," but let's not make a Matisse out of a Mondrian here.)

"But it's all about timing," Dziedzic said. "When you're laying off cops and firefighters, it may not be the best time to do this."

Art for the masses

Dziedzic said his philosophy professor at St. Thomas once coached the class on how to view art. "He said some day you'll be with snobbish town people at an art gallery," he recalled. "You need to learn the words like, 'look at the depth of that painting,' or 'see those subliminal images?' That kind of B.S."

Dziedzic laughed. Still, he is in favor "of anything that brings notoriety to the neighborhood."

"We have one art work designed to rust," he said. "We got one proposed of a giant pierogi on a stick. I like that."

I read somewhere that the "Mannekin Pis" in Brussels is sometimes hooked up to a keg, and that beer is served from it on special occasions. Now, I think that's something that both Dziedzic and I could get behind, even in these dire times. • 612-673-1702