Public art is getting a lot of attention in the metro lately. Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig recently wrote an opinion piece explaining why, while he is in favor of public art, he is not in support of publicly funding art. I respectfully disagree with him and want to share why public funding of the arts is critical to the entire community.
Would private funders step in and “save” public art, as Commissioner Gehrig contends? I suppose they might, but that presents a tricky situation for artists. When one person funds art, the art almost always is created with that one person’s perspective.
Let’s look at the Bison, for example. Now, I am a fan of the Bison, and not just because they are a product of The Arts Partnership, then the Lake Agassiz Arts Council. I genuinely like them and think they are a good addition to our community. They were funded by a private donor who came to the then-director and basically said, “I want artistically decorated Bison in the community, and here’s the money to do it.”
You can assess this two ways:
1. Great–we have money to create public art!
2. We have to create the public art the funder wants because that particular art is what the dollars are attached to.
With unrestricted funds, what might the arts community have created? We don’t know because while the funds were there, they were most definitely not unrestricted. And they didn’t have to be because they were coming from a single funder who had every right to put parameters on the program.
We now have a series of Bison, some of whom are definitely showing their age (10 years this year) and who are pretty typical of this kind of work that was done in communities all over the country well before Fargo did them.
But we have them, and we wouldn’t have them without this private donation.
It’s a rock and hard place conundrum.
Think about your favorite artists in the metro or beyond. Can you imagine what she/he/they might create for the public if left to actually create with sufficient funds?
This is why public AND private dollars and relationships are so vital to the arts and why I disagree with Commissioner Gehrig. We need funding from every facet of the metro to create a diverse and thoughtful public art collection, both permanent and temporary.
If it were just about creating art, this argument of no public dollars for it might have better legs, but that is simply not the case. Public art is a significant facet in the attraction and retention of businesses and employees. It creates an important sense of place. It engages everyone who encounters it in one way or another. It serves the entire community, whether you ever interact with it or not. It generates economic growth–where people gather, business springs up. A piece of public art might encourage a new coffee shop to open, which might attract a new gallery, which could get a theatre company to move in near by, which might get a small boutique or two to take a risk, which might get investors to clean up old buildings and develop live-work spaces…you get the idea.
But please allow me to conclude with my recent comment from a post on the High Plains Reader‘s John Strand’s Facebook wall about Commissioner Gehrig and his opinion:
“I don’t agree with Commissioner Tony Gehrig on much of anything, and I certainly don’t support no public funding for the arts, but I will say that I have had many conversations with him, and I would love to see the conversation rise above “he sucks” and other aggressive language. Who is that serving? He was elected, he has a public platform and he is using it to try to spread his agenda. It’s not an agenda I agree with, and it’s no surprise that I didn’t vote for him, but he doesn’t suck. He has a differing opinion. John Strand–your publication, mine, and others, including the say anything blog, have our own large platforms from which to preach our agendas. What if we all elected to take the high road? To disagree without resorting to name calling? I am certainly not implying that you have resorted to that, John (because I don’t think you have), but I think we have an obligation to raise the level of discourse. Like him or not, Commissioner Gehrig, to my knowledge, has not name called anyone who disagrees with him. Let’s at least be on the same page there.”
I implore all who read this to take the high road. We can disagree without turning in to bullies. We can continue to fight the good fight, which is more public art funding and art funding in general, from a variety of funding sources and maintain our integrity.
Stepping away from mic and off of soap box now.