published Monday, February 21st, 2011

Chattanooga's public art expense questioned

by Cliff Hightower
  • photo
    Staff Photo by John Rawlston "Arriving Home," a sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim in Miller Plaza, is seen Thursday at twilight framing the EPB Building. It is the second of four pieces acquired by the Hunter Museum of Art to be installed in Chattanooga public spaces.

City Councilman Jack Benson says he wants the council to spend more time discussing whether to spend $20,000 on public art in Chattanooga.

He wants to put the brakes on funding public art while the council sees how the 2011-12 fiscal year budget is shaping up.

"I think it's reasonable," Benson said. "I think it needs to be looked at in light of how much money this city is going to spend this year."

The public art program has been contentious for a number of years, with many saying the city spends too much on the statues and art fixtures scattered around town.

Chattanooga spent $100,000 annually on public art until this year, said Peggy Townsend, director of the public art program. This year, the city decided to spend $20,000 on the program.

The expenditure came up last Tuesday during a City Council meeting. The council voted 7-2 to spend the $20,000 for administration costs. The Lyndhurst Foundation promised to give a $40,000 grant to the program.

But Benson said the $20,000 could be too much in light of the economy and said he would bring the resolution up again at the next council meeting.

He said he accidentally voted "yes" for the resolution, thinking he was voting on a motion to defer the resolution rather than actually OK it. Since he wound up on the winning side of the vote, he needs another council member to help bring it back up for another vote.

Whether he could find that vote remains to be seen.

Council Chairman Manny Rico said he did not see much room for getting the resolution overturned.

Councilwoman Pam Ladd, who voted against the resolution, agreed. Even if Benson voted against it, she said, it would take two more votes to overturn it altogether.

"I don't know if you are going to get a different outcome," she said.

The public art program has a budget this year of more than $350,000, which includes the city's $20,000 contribution. Townsend said the $20,000 contribution helps raise about $1.5 million to $2 million annually in foundation and federal funds for public art.

"The city gets a lot for a little," she said.

Parks and Recreation Director Larry Zehnder said Friday he may try to give a presentation to the council detailing how much funding comes from the city and what the money helps pay for.

"I think it's more than a vote that needs to be discussed," he said.


* $353,830: Budget for public art, including private and city contributions

* $40,000: Lyndhurst grant for the public art program

* $20,000: City contribution for the Lyndhurst grant and amount the city is putting into public art for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

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Allison12 said...

Mr. Hightower please help clarify a couple of items in your article, because as always the amounts reported by the City of Chattanooga are a moving target by design.

I request clarification on two items in this article. If the City Council is claiming they only spent $20,000 in public art activities, I have to say liar, liar pants on fire.

Item 1 The City reports "Chattanooga spent $100,000 annually on public art until this year, said Peggy Townsend, director of the public art program. This year, the city decided to spend $20,000 on the program."

Yet, this article reports that the city budget for public art is "350,000" this year. I realize $20,000 is from grants, but how much of the remaining $330,000 is public and how much is private.

Item 2 How much does the City spend in total for ALL public art expenditures? The Public Art Director's salary, benefits, moving big pieces of rock, and ALL expenditures. Piecing expenses to distort the total spending is not truthful with the public. If they are claiming that the City only spends $20,000 total in public art expenses, they are not being truthful.

Frankly, it is not a function of government to decide what is art and mandate property taxes for such pursuits. If individuals want art, let them pay for the rock and glass. It is wrong to force citizens to pay for art.

February 21, 2011 at 7:42 a.m.
dendod said...

I think it's a shame that Littlefield in the past has spent so much of our money on piles of painted scrap iron. I thought myself to raise some cash I'd carefully pile some scrap lumber and title it "Flammable" and try to sell it to the mayor as art. people living under bridges, scrounging for food in dumpsters and he's buying art with our money. SHAME.

February 21, 2011 at 8 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Art is a great use for property taxes because, without it, the area would look as it did in 1989.

Remember those large "road closed" signs across the Walnut Street Bridge? Beautiful hurricane fencing across that. The list of parts of the city that looked like industrial wreckage was long, intense and detailed.

Businesses ran away from the city solely because of the trashy look to the place. They stayed repelled after crime, pollution and social problems drove away the first waves of people with a chance to innovate. We were trapped in a destructive cycle.

Part of the reason why we can get people to invest here today is because we can, on a good day, at least look like we've got our act together, halfway. Public art is a part of those quality of life improvement programs.

Art expenditures in the city include children's programs, free symphony concerts for the public, and whatever else it takes to attract jobs to this place. Art is a basic expenditure. We simply cannot exclude simple clean and professional appearances from our city and county area and expect to remain modestly competitive.

We could all buy streetlights ourselves, too. Taking an unrealistic and complaining attitude towards basic municipal functions, like presenting a commercially viable appearance, will not help our situation. We simply can't act as tacky and complaining and cheap as possible and expect to do commerce with the civilized world.

Get it together and stop complaining about the art programs. Or, maybe for a radical and adventurous approach, look at each piece out there. Purchase one yourself. Build one yourself.

Every time I hear someone complaining about this public art, I imagine that I am hearing one more person who has never cut rock, welded metal, installed a large object or done anything comparable to making significant smaller pieces. The sculptors are among our more talented workers. This includes all of the preparatory and supporting work it takes to get a piece installed.

Art is single-point manufacturing. Chattanooga's commerce remains built on skilled labor. Public art is a direct and functional testimony to our commercial skills.

February 21, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.
gibbyh said... The best and funniest argument against public art I've seen in a while. Let's face it. Most public art sucks. If I have to look at any more "found" objects, particularly another stack of leftover I-beams, I'm going to puke. A lot of the art in general in Chattanooga sucks. The "art mill"'s shows I find to be hilariously bad, a mix of the depressing bric-a-brac found at the Sunday market and failed conceptual ideas that long stopped being funded by the Guggenheim's of the world.
The idea of public art is a good one. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, it usually results in obnoxious lumps-of-something foisted on an indifferent public.
Look at it this way-at least we don't have a thousand Howard Finster imitators in Chatt.

February 21, 2011 at 9:07 a.m.
Allison12 said...

jpo3136, Never should taxes to forced from citizens for art.

February 21, 2011 at 9:31 a.m.
marianna said...

I second jpo3136's sentiments. Public art is one of the things that makes Chattanooga the great and beautiful city that it is. The public art program ensures that art is truly accessible to everyone in the community, not just those who can afford to "pay for the rock and glass" themselves.

February 21, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.
LibDem said...

jpo3136: Thanks for your comments. And marianna also. If 'sucks' and 'puke' are the best verbs your mom could teach you, you're probably busy removing the wheels from your house.

February 21, 2011 at 10:44 a.m.
champ1 said...

Public art is an inexpensive way to draw a visitors eyes away from the condition of some of our worst downtown streets and vacant buildings. Visitors and new move-ins from major cities are more accustomed to a better looking infrastructure for their highways and roadways, but the truth is we can't afford those kind of upgrades to our city just yet. (The real truth is niether can their hometowns, thats why we have lower taxes and a growing job market) Art is a nice compromise. It keeps us out of the major debt required to upgrade the look of our home, while appealing to outsiders in a positive way. You nitpickers need to get over it. If government isn't there for anything else, they do need to make sure our public areas look appealing. I don't see anything wrong with this approach.

February 21, 2011 at 11 a.m.
gibbyh said...

"If 'sucks' and 'puke' are the best verbs your mom could teach you, you're probably busy removing the wheels from your house."

Oh, gosh, must we trot out the postmodernist lingo to convince you that public art critics are not all some knuckle dragging trailerparkers? Really, LibDemElite, you be so classist?

I would love to see modern sculpure on the level of say, marino marini, in our public sphere, but we don't often get sculpture of that level, just more of that abandoned foundry-turned hipster loft scrapmetal tossup, weird oral-fixation oval abstractions, and assorted "functionalist" stuff in front of banks next to fountains.

The defenders of this sort of stuff will give you the narrative-it's all a "commentary", of course, on today's society. As Tom Wolfe so accurately opined, it's actually an unintentional commentary on the dearth of craft and the proliferation of art schools.

I actually enjoy the River Gallery Sculpure Garden, but for the most part, the public art in this town is as cold, dead, and offputting as any that you see in front of a corporate headquarters in most cities.

February 21, 2011 at 11:24 a.m.
harrystatel said...

Much of the "Public Art" in Chattanooga, if placed in someone's front yard, would have Codes Enforcement on your doorstep telling you "Remove it or pay a fine."

February 21, 2011 at 11:57 a.m.
Leaf said...

Yes, much of the public art in Chattanooga is pretty bad, but that's the same anywhere you go. I still appreciate the 10% that's really good and makes Chattanooga a better place to live. But, seriously, gibbyh is right about the meaningless random piles of i-beams. Enough already.

February 21, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

NEWS FLASH: Real artists have patrons...This means they do not leech off citizens, taxpayers and property owners, at least not without the expressed permission from same...Look around the Chattanooga "art scene" and ask yourself "Who among these soi-disant 'artists' can make it in a free market capitalist economy?" Give yourself extra credit if you know who the current head of the Lyndhurst Foundation is (Benic M. "Bruzz" Clark III) and what his Lookout Mountain-dwelling sister Julie Clark does to "earn" her living...

February 21, 2011 at 12:37 p.m.
youngdem said...

Saw an earlier mention of the River Gallery Sculpture Garden, which I also love. Public art is a great asset for the city, but just for the record, the River Gallery Sculpture Garden is 100% funded by the Bluff View Art District. It receives no public money of any kind.

February 21, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.
nucanuck said...

Does anyone really think VW would have chosen Chattanooga if the city had not invested in itself? Public art is an integral part of what has enabled Chattanooga to move ahead of similar US cities.

Leading cities of the world have always been patrons of the arts and the taxes paid that go toward the arts come back to us manyfold. The commenters above opposing tax money for art can't be looking at the big picture/greater good that public art adds to a city.

February 21, 2011 at 4:11 p.m.
NoMyth said...

A modest budget for some whimsical downtown sculptures is fine and contributes to some good cheer; but, please no more horrific, painted I-beams....that is a lazy attempt at inspiration.

February 21, 2011 at 6:36 p.m.
rosebud said...

As long as there's money in the city budget to pay Missy Crutchfield $110,000 a year, it's hard to take the mayor or any city council person seriously. If there was a budget crunch, that expenditure would be first to go...if sane people were running government.

February 21, 2011 at 11:24 p.m.
midnitewatchman said...

Nice wide clean maintained sidewalks, shrubbery and trees well groomed, good lighting, these are things I can see the city taking a priority ($$)for in its neighborhoods, Art could come from one of many of the local colleges or Art clubs as I am sure they have art programs or the colleges/universities could work out an art exchange program, students/Art clubs from other cities display their work here and they send their work there. Spending here reminds me of the movie "The Jerk" when Steve Martin gets all his money, people from everywhere wanted him to donate "Cat juggling in Mexico, Oh no, we have to stop that, heres 20K"

February 22, 2011 at 2:34 p.m.
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