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For Council, Art is a $3 million word

Thursday, February 12, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Prompted by about $3.1 million worth of art-related contracts on today’s meeting agenda, City Council had a far-reaching discussion about art, spending and the local economy on Tuesday.

Council Member Don Zimmerman referred to $3 million in contracts that would go to public art at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as the “ultimate blank check.”

“I want to ask my Council colleagues to put this into a committee and ask that this $3 million be broken up into smaller steps, so that we can bid it out to more local companies so we know what we’re asking for,” Zimmerman said.

All of the proposed contracts would go to artists who have gone through an application process involving a selection panel that looks at qualifications with input from a group of project advisers. The Art in Public Places Panel and the Arts Commission have also confirmed the selections.

Mayor Steve Adler said that, if Council were to follow a different course at today’s meeting, he’d like more information beforehand. “I would be interested in knowing, at that point, what is the impact of stopping something that’s mid-process in terms of where we are as opposed to having a conversation that looks prospectively on an issue like that,” he said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she’d like to reconsider the issue in a more holistic way. “I would be very reluctant to stop the process that’s already begun with these particular items,” she said. “I think it’s much more appropriate to examine the whole program, going forward.”

The airport projects consist of a $2 million contract with Massachusetts artist Janet Echelman and a $1 million contract with New York City artist Rachel Feinstein. Funding would come from the current fiscal year’s Aviation Department capital budget.

Another $95,000 contract would go to Dallas artist Eric Eley for an Austin Studios project. Funding would come from last fiscal year’s Economic Development Department capital budget.

Backup documents for the contracts explain the source of their funding. “By ordinance, 2% of eligible capital improvement project budgets are allocated to commission of artwork for public sites such as the airport, convention center, libraries, parks, police stations, streetscapes, and recreation centers.”

Zimmerman posted a resolution and accompanying ordinance to the City of Austin Council message board last Wednesday designed to change this policy. The resolution states that “an ordinance which mandates spending on art is contributing to unaffordability in Austin.”

Zimmerman said that no Council member has signed on as a co-sponsor and that he has received a multitude of emails opposing such a policy change.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she would like to learn more about how the contract amounts are determined in general.

“Are there some times that people say, we could do something really great here if we had $100,000 instead of $95,000?” Troxclair said. “And are there times that we say … are we forcing ourselves to spend up to $2 million when we could do a great art installation for $1 million?”

The only requirements that staff set when they issued a request for qualifications for applicants for the airport projects were that they be “professional visual artists and artist teams, at least 18 years of age, who live in the United States.”

The selection panels for the two airport contracts narrowed the applicants down to five finalists each. While one of the finalists for the $2 million contract was an Austin artist named Danae Stratou, she was the only artist from the state who made it that far.

Art in Public Places Administrator Meghan Wells said that, though the airport projects involved national calls that did not give preference to local artists, that is not always the case.

“The bulk of our public art collection — we have 200 pieces in the collection right now — were created by local artists,” she said. “It’s a matter of weighing the parameters, but a lot of our calls that go out are for Texas or Austin artists.”

The request for the Austin Studios Expansion project, for example, was limited to applicants who live in the state.

Council Member Ora Houston said that she is concerned about such large contracts being awarded to artists outside of Austin. “We do have just a wealth of artists in town,” she said. “We’ve got $3 million going someplace else to people someplace else that really don’t have a sense of heart and soul for the city.”

Houston also noted that some members of the selection panels live in other cities. “I’m not sure that they even know about Austin,” she said.

Zimmerman eventually got frustrated with the responses he was getting from staff about public art programs, and requested that city staff present an opposing viewpoint.

“There’s an empty chair right there,” Zimmerman said, pointing to the table at which staff was seated. “I’d like that empty chair to be filled by someone that would counter the sale arguments I just heard. I want to hear another skeptical voice that says this money could be spent in better ways.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo responded to this sentiment. “Asking our staff to, in essence, argue against a program that they’ve been directed to implement is just not a fair or reasonable request,” she said.

City Manager Marc Ott also weighed in on the matter. “Our job here is to carry out a policy that had been in place for a good number of years,” he said. “In terms of carrying out that responsibility, I don’t believe it’s our job to bring some opposing point of view.

“I agree that, certainly, opposing points of view are welcome as part of any public discourse,” Ott continued. “But, in this instance … I don’t think that is an appropriate role for the city manager to do. We are simply carrying out a policy relative to longstanding programs for your consideration today, and you have our recommendations in front of you.”

Photo by Dion Hinchcliffe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Flickr

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