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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 1.14.2010

 

Making the City ‘More Uniquer’

Getting public art off of Eugene’s back burner

By Suzi Steffen

Zombies interacting with public art at the transit station
The Procession, by Dallas Williams Cole, at the Hilton’s conference center 
Etched glass panels at the Hult Center
Tile by Betsy Wolfston, from 8th & Monroe
Oliphant, from the children’s section at the Eugene Public Library
Now You See Them, by Judith Sparks at the eugene public library

An epic 2008 flood wiped out hundreds of buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and now Iowa’s Linn County is developing a public art plan for new county buildings.

No flood has swept through downtown Eugene, but the city wants to brighten up its art offerings and figure out how to jump-start its half-moribund public art program. That work began with a consultant and a committee, a survey and a workshop, interviews and meetings.

Now, as grant-funded public art consultant Clark Worth of Portland’s Barney and Worth puts the finishing touches on a “master plan” for the city of Eugene’s public art policies, those on the master plan steering committee express what one member calls “cautious optimism” about the future. That’s tempered with concerns about funding, about leadership within the city structure and about the ways committee reports can serve as substitutes for action within a bureaucracy.

 

‘The World’s Greatest City of the Arts’

Ever since the semi-official motto of Eugene — “The World’s Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors” — started making its way into public consciousness, people in Eugene (and elsewhere) have poked fun at its pretention.

“It’s aspirational,” Worth said at the steeing committee’s final meeting, which combined one last chance for public comment (no one commented, but the meeting was in the Hult Center at noon on a Wednesday, so perhaps place and time discouraged much public involvement) with one last discussion of the draft plan for committee members. LCC’s Rick Williams said, “It doesn’t sound aspirational. It sounds like a brag.”

The committee was concerned with the visual arts, for the most part. A public workshop in mid-October attracted about 45 people, and some of those people suggested that the city consider performance art in the visual arts category. With the Hult Center and its seven resident companies, all focused on music or dance, and the number of theaters in and near town, the visual arts folks often express their concern that the “city of the arts” portion of the motto doesn’t include them.

During the almost 30 years that the Eugene public art plan has been part of city policy, public art has had no staff time (that is, no FTE) and no solid collection policy. Someone wants to donate a bronze statue of Ken Kesey? Great! Someone wants to raise the funds for a Eugene Japanese American Art Memorial about internment during WWII? Fantastic, because the city doesn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy that kind of art on its own.

Why doesn’t the city have the money? Funding for public art programs, which cities began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, usually comes from “percent for  art” policies that reserve 1, 1.5 or 2 percent of public works monies for art projects usually tied to the specific public work. The new Eugene Public Library serves as a perfect example of how percent for art can work well to tie in local artists like John Rose to the building where the art is situated. “One of the reasons that percent for art has been so successful,” says Clark Worth, “is that we’re building art infrastructure alongside other infrastructure. The library was the model raised to us most often.”

But Eugene’s percent for art program relies on large-scale development by the city, and it’s what the draft master plan calls narrow. The 1981 ordinance language says that the city must reserve 1 percent of remodeling and construction costs for public places. That means “any building, park, mall or other capital construction project (but not including streets, alleys, bicycle paths, and other public thoroughfares) constructed or remodeled by the city which construction or remodeling involves in expenditure of more than $50,000.” 

Wait, not including streets or bike paths? What were they thinking in 1981? Apparently, no one can remember; the draft plan says that “the rationale is no longer clear.” The plan also dryly notes that “the omission of transportation facilities is somewhat ironic” because public thoroughfares “provide some of the best, most visible sites for installation of public art.” 

In addition, though the city of Eugene doesn’t undertake large building construction every year or even every decade, it does deal with transportation and public byways. So, of course, the draft plan at least called for a revision of the policy to include those areas. In addition, Worth noted in an interview, most cities now call for 1.5 or 2 percent of the costs to go to funding public art. That extra percent can help fund maintenance — public art needs to be cleaned, repaired and generally paid attention to as it ages — spur innovative design and help fund a city position or two to administrate the public art program.

Tina Rinaldi, who chaired the city’s 2006-2007 Cultural Policy Review, summed up the issues that Eugene’s public art committee will need to deal with after the final master plan emerges: “The crux of the matter [is that] we need funding, dedicated staff and a way to usher projects through the system.”



‘Do We Have To?’

The master plan won’t include an action plan, Worth said at the final meeting, even though every public art plan he and Eloise Damrosch, executive director of Portland's Regional Arts and Culture Council, have worked on before has contained a timeline and specific calls for action. “The reason we didn’t do this is that if you don’t get more funding,” he trailed off before finishing: “There isn’t a timeline without more resources. We thought it would be frustrating to have a pseudo-timeline there.”

Official city Ambassador for the Arts (and former Register-Guard arts writer) Fred Crafts, a member of the steering committee, said, “There’s some momentum now, and I don’t want to see that stop … How do we move this forward?”

City facilities manager Mike Penwell said that the main problem with implementation wasn’t the language of the ordinance or the exact number of the percent for art. “The number one question I get on public projects is, ‘Do we have to put public art projects in it?’”

Some resistance to public art lingers not only among developers but in the public itself. More than 400 people (including me) took part in last fall’s survey and public art workshop (live blog of that is available at wkly.ws/8e), many of them visual or performing artists or others who work in cultural production, but that’s far from everyone who has a comment about public art.

When TV station KVAL ran a story on the meeting and the plans to revitalize the public art program, comments on the story (which you can find at wkly.ws/8d) ranged from, “They are cutting school art programs left and right. Let’s put the money where it matters!” to the aggrieved (and aggressive). “Not one taxpayer penny should be wasted on ‘Public Art.’ Use the money to arrest the punks on the downtown ‘mall’ and put them to work on a chain gang.” 

As Eugene slowly emerges from the recession, a backlog of public works projects waits for city money and attention. A commenter on the Weekly’s blog post about the draft master plan wrote, “Fill the damn potholes.”

Jill Hartz, executive director of the Jordan Schnitzer Musuem of Art and a member of the master plan steering committee, remains not only sympathetic to the varying needs of the community but optimistic that public art fills different holes in the city’s ecosystem. 

“It’s all necessary. For many of us, it would be difficult to live in a world without art,” Hartz said in an interview. “Some of us would rather have potholes than not have art, but there’s got to be a balance, and that’s why we have government,” she added. “Government is representing all of us and needs to hear from all of us.”

Other members of the steering committee responded differently. “We can’t have all public art and no way to get to it,” said Kari Westlund of Travel Lane County. 

Tina Rinaldi placed art in the same category as other public works. “The arts and culture in the community are infrastructure just like the roads,” Rinaldi said. “If the smooth roads don’t take you anyplace interesting, who cares if they’re smooth?” 



Where Do We Go From Here?

Though the city of Eugene has never had specifically assigned staff for public art, that may be changing. Newly hired city employee Isaac Marquez (whose art you might have seen at Davis’) apparently has been given the nod to devote half of his full-time position to public art. He’s officially both the assistant community events manager and the public art program manager, a change that took the public art master plan steering committee by surprise at their final meeting.

Most midsize cities with public art programs, Clark Worth emphasized, have at least two full-time staff members devoted to the projects. Rinaldi and Rick Williams both expressed their surprise at Marquez’ newly defined position and their doubt that he could leverage more staff time. Marquez, at least as optimistic as Jill Hartz, has hope. “Strong public art can become the soul and pride of a city,” he said. “If you imagine stripping art away and trying to visualize what you have left, it’s pretty stark; it’s pretty cold, it’s pretty concrete. If you put the art back in and you flip through photos of what people notice or where they take their pictures, these are the spots they gather, the spots they focus on.”

Marquez said that he expects to go through the final draft of the plan with the public art committee (smaller and somewhat different than the master plan steering committee) and the recently formed Arts and Business Alliance “and pull out some strategies to go after in the next one to three years.” He added, “Some things, the timing isn’t right,” mostly because of the economy. 

The Arts and Business Alliance of Eugene, formed in late 2008, consists of the city of Eugene, Travel Lane County, LCC, the UO and the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. On the city’s website (wkly.ws/8f), the alliance says, “Business is essential to a viable arts community and arts are good for business.” The idea of needing a “creative class,” said just-retired Cultural Services Director Laura Niles at the final committee meeting, is “a cultural shift that we’ve experienced in the past year with the idea of public art and how it’s part of development.”

Kari Westlund of Travel Lane County, who serves on the alliance’s executive committee, thinks that the point of the alliance may be to help communicate public art plans to various constituencies in the city, higher education institutions and business. “We’re hopeful that we will keep the alliance realistic and grounded and provide support,” she said, but “not monetary support. Putting out your plans, building expectations, you feel like you need to live up to the expectations you’ve built.”

Marquez and the alliance may have other help (or a group with competing interest). Mary Unruh of the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts stated several times in the final meeting that what she wanted to see was an arts council. “The absence of an arts council is always a handicap in communities,” Clark Worth said. “Having a local arts council would definitely be an asset.” 



Art Breaks Through

But official policy, FTE equivalents, the mechanisms of percent for art and the potholes objections might not matter to local artists. Art can flourish, and artists can find ways to eat and pay their rent, with public support, but artists will push through the cracks when the public support isn’t there.

At the public art workshop in October, participants suggested everything from glittering up parking meters and bike racks to sponsoring temporary installations in parks. A local artist wrote to me on Facebook about a flash mob in Kesey Square a few years ago that “spelled out the word ART in pennies,” and several others agreed that the flash mob idea, whether musical or something similar, was public art they wanted to see. 

Other artists, led by DJ Marc Time, have formed a Facebook group called Eugene Storefront Art Project to focus on getting local art into empty storefronts in downtown Eugene. Members of the group are working on the project, and they’ll be holding a meeting some time in February to talk about their progress.

J-Schnitz director Jill Hartz, who helped re-establish a UO Arts Council that had been moribund for decades, thinks collaborative arts festivals might work, so that “people start getting used to seeing these wonderful interventions in our landscape all over town.” Though the public art plan could help all of these ideas, they also might happen on their own in a town that’s as full of artists as Eugene.

As the public art master plan steering committee discussed the problems facing the plan (money, staffing, and, oh, money), Hartz asked where this plan would really go. “This is Eugene, and it has to happen in Eugene’s way,” Worth said.

City facilities manager Mike Penwell riposted, “All cities in the country are unique, and we’re even more uniquer.”

Even without an epic flood. 

Watch EW! A Blog for more coverage of the public art master plan, the Cultural Policy Review’s progress and the storefront art project. Email Suzi Steffen (suzi@eugeneweekly.com) to tell her what kind of artistic flash mob the Weekly should sponsor.