Friday, July 14, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

Arts panel faces procedural misstep

On Monday, the Art in Public Places panel felt caught in the middle of a procedural misstep taken by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, which wanted donated art installed at the new Central Library.

John Gillum, the library facilities planning manager, said the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation has raised money for a 20-by-20-foot dragonfly sculpture by Chicago artist James Brenner to be created and installed in a site previously designated for another artwork, which was relocated.

The Art in Public Places program allows 2 percent of a construction project’s budget for artwork at that site, and any piece must be vetted by the program’s panel to make sure it is aesthetically pleasing and fits its environment. Panel members said because the dragonfly is a donation, which the foundation raised $167,000 to obtain, it bypasses that formal process – unlike the relocated artwork it is replacing, which went through the right steps. Brett Barnes, liaison to the Arts Commission, reiterated that he told the Arts Commission at its last meeting in June that letting the piece slip by would create a future loophole.

“This just seemed like going this route was skirting the issue of having a process that was in place and then finding an entity to then donate a piece of artwork that didn’t have to go through a process, didn’t have to get vetted through anybody,” Barnes said. “And I just felt that that needed a broader conversation.”

The Arts Commission voted 6 to 5 to refer the artwork to the panel for recommendations before the commission makes a final approval.

Gillum said the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation was unaware the artwork must be vetted, and said it has already raised millions for the new Central Library. Gillum said the foundation will announce how much it has raised in donations before the library’s grand opening.

“I apologize for the confusion,” Gillum said. “My director did not think that the art that was going to be acquired for the new Central Library was going to be donation money (that) needed to come through the Art in Public Places process. I would like to put this significant piece of art up because I think it will be a great attribute.”

Artwork approved by the Arts Commission is added to the Art in Public Places collection. Frank Wick, collection manager for Art in Public Places, said Austin Public Library does not have its own collection manager despite having a collection of small pieces, which is why the dragonfly must go through Art in Public Places.

Wick also said the library offered to maintain the artwork in perpetuity, meaning funding for maintenance would be forever, rather than pay the 2 percent.

Panel member and artist Dharmesh Patel, who is moving to Santa Fe in two weeks, said the size and pertinence of the artwork’s location is the only reason why he is hesitant to recommend approving it to the commission. Panel member and artist Hollis Hammonds was also cautious, and said accepting the artwork would complicate future arrangements with other departments seeking artwork approval.

“I just think we’re in a hard place because if we say no, we’re going to be seen as the villain,” Hammonds said. “And if we say yes, we are going to be seen as not supporting our process and the (previous) artist.”

Panel member and landscape architect Ilse Frank asked Gillum why the library did not choose a local artist, referencing City Council’s past gripes with picking foreign artists.

“We were told by the mayor and Council and city management to go forth and create the library of the future and create something that could really represent Austin well,” Gillum said. “So we threw our net a little wider this time and looked at people that have done public art throughout the nation.”

Sensing the panel’s hesitation, Gillum praised the dragonfly’s glass wings, which would cast a shadow of downtown Austin onto the pavement. At night, it will light up. The mechanism will be powered by an electric base that will cost the library $5,000. Gillum said the contractor built the base in while the area was under construction to avoid having to go back and install it later.

The panel voted all in favor of creating a work group to assess the artwork and future donated art from the library, on which panel members Frank, Hammonds and Barnes will serve. The Arts Commission will vote on whether to accept the piece at its Aug. 21 meeting.

This story has been corrected since publication. The Arts Commission voted 6-5 to refer the artwork, not 6-4-1 as originally reported.Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Art In Public Places: Since 1985 this program has worked to install public art throughout the city. Under city statute, two percent of eligible capital improvement project budgets is directed towards art for the site. The public art collection that results from this program can be seen at places like the airport, city hall, libraries, parks and streetscapes.

Austin Public Library: This is Austin's public library system, run by the city.

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