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Commission sends back public art guidelines

Wednesday, October 21, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The city’s Art in Public Places guidelines are being revised this year for improved legibility, formatting and a stronger focus on equity. They have not been updated since 2004 and most of the changes are uncontroversial, but the Arts Commission was unwilling to approve the edits Monday after noticing some flaws in the proposed language.

Susan Lambe, program manager for the Art in Public Places program, told the commission that a top reason for revising the guidelines is to reflect the program’s emphasis on equity when selecting artists and works to be featured in capital projects that receive funding from the city. The program allocates 2 percent of project budgets for art at new construction sites, as seen at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, convention center or Central Library.

Commissioners quickly noted, however, that the language for consideration of equity when choosing selection panelists and artists focuses exclusively on race, leaving out marginalized groups such as LGBTQ communities and people with disabilities.

“The conversation that happened was more about racial equity because that’s what the city of Austin’s leading with,” Lambe explained. “And the intent is that if we can solve for racial equity, all equity is served.”

Commissioner Bears Rebeccca Fonte said the lack of other equity considerations “does draw attention to it by its absence.” Fonte added, “I think racial equity is the most important of the equity lenses, but I don’t think that solving one solves the others and I think that is just not true.”

Brett Barnes, who serves as the Arts Commission liaison on the Art in Public Places panel, moved to send the guidelines back to the panel to try to work through the equity language. The panel previously approved the edits on Sept. 14.

“I think out of respect that we should send this back to (the panel) and let them know some of these concerns,” Barnes said. “I mean, we’ve waited since 2004; it’s not like this has got to roll down the mountain today.”

The Art in Public Places panel’s seven members are appointed by the Arts Commission, whose members are in turn appointed by City Council members. The purpose of the panel is to advise the commission on public art decisions, but commissioners said another part of the proposed guidelines would contradict that purpose as outlined in the existing ordinance.

The proposed guidelines define the panel as serving to oversee the commission’s decisions, whereas the ordinance states that the panel exists to advise the commission.

“I think it’s overstepping,” Fonte said. “I’m just going to be honest. To me, the arts commission is appointed by the City Council members who are voted on by the general population and the (panel) is not. So they may be subject experts in arts, but we are supposedly subject matter experts in policy, at least for arts policy.”

Commissioner Lulu Flores moved to recommend the original definition of the panel be preserved, stating that from a legal perspective such a change would need to take place in the actual text of the ordinance, not in the definition section.

Barnes argued that oversight from the panel could help remove “subjective qualities” from the commission’s decisions over art projects, clarifying that “we all have a right to review and to do all of that, but they are asked to be volunteers because of their expertise in that realm.” Barnes added that the panel members already sense “a mistrust coming from the Arts Commission of their work.”

Commissioner Amy Mok, who supported Flores’ motion, said the purpose of preserving the language is to follow the ordinance, not to signal distrust of the panel. “We rarely reject the recommendation from the (panel). I personally always support them.”

After approving Flores’ amendment, the commission agreed to table revisions and allow the panel to revisit the issue over equity.

This story has been corrected. A previous version of the story reported that the panel was considering changes to the AIPP ordinance, not the guidelines, which establish the process the city uses to enact the AIPP Ordinance.

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