Seeing art through

By Andy Balaskovitz

The Lansing City Council is preparing for public art, but who will pay for it?

The Lansing City Council is in the process of establishing a formal commission to review and facilitate public art, but an underlying question that needs to be dealt with is: Will the public pay for it?

Because it’s the first time Mayor Virg Bernero will start a fiscal year with a balanced budget, Council members may be somewhat reticent to devote General Fund dollars to pay for public art projects.

But, more generally, public art is seen as a tool that helps residents create a sense of place, and, some argue, generate economic activity.

“A (public art plan) should be part of any municipality’s strategic plan for retaining and attracting talent to a region,” Bob Trezise, Lansing Economic Area Partnership president and CEO, told City Pulse last month. “Arts and culture represent opportunity and wealth. Along with maintenance of parks, recreation programs and education, they all add up to job creation. The better they are, the better the jobs will be.”

Councilwoman Jessica Yorko has been working with the Arts Council of Greater Lansing on a draft public-art ordinance working its way through committee. In one draft, the Arts Council recommended 3 percent of money spent on Capital Improvement Projects — such as facility improvements, sidewalk repairs and sewer infrastructure upgrades — be “devoted to the purchase and maintenance of public art.” Three percent of the amount budgeted next fiscal year for such projects is about $325,000.

Capital Improvement Projects are funded through a variety of sources, including the General Fund; police, fire and parks millages; streets and parking funds and grants. In his proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, Bernero proposed spending nearly $10.9 million on Capital Improvement Projects. Of that, $1.4 million would come from the General Fund.

The commission doesn’t necessarily have to work with city funds set aside — it could simply be an entity that applies for grants, Yorko said. But, she added, “(the Arts Council) was urging us to set aside some city funds. That’s not as easy a thing to roll that out and vote on that.”

Yorko said it’s unclear how much the city spends on public art. She said some smaller neighborhood grants have helped pay for parts of murals, which she estimated to be less than $1,000. Bernero could not be reached for comment.

Other communities around the country have for years gone off a “Percent for Art” formula, in which 1 percent of the cost of a Capital Improvement Project goes toward public art as part of it. For example, if it cost $50,000 to repair a section of sidewalk, $500 would be spent on art.

For about six years, Ann Arbor selected certain Capital Improvement Projects to include the 1 percent for art (or up to $250,000) after decades of having an arts commission that oversaw art gifts coming to the city, Mayor John Hieftje said. But Hieftje said Ann Arbor started moving away from that last year partly because state law is “restrictive” in how the art money has to be spent. For example, if it’s related to a public utility, the art has to be spent on the “utilities and their mission.” When the city planned a rebuild of its sewage treatment plant, “the restriction is that we could have a $250,000 piece of art at the sewage treatment plant. But that’s probably not the place most people would like to see it.”

Instead, Ann Arbor has hired a dedicated staff member — “someone trained in art and development” — to administer a “community-based funding model,” he said.

East Lansing’s ordinance allows the City Council to devote up to one-tenth of 1 percent of its General Fund budget for public art. In recent years, $10,500 has been devoted annually for arts and culture grants, Mayor Nathan Triplett said.

However, Triplett said selecting projects is done on an “ad hoc basis.” He has been “working behind the scenes” to move to the percent for art model to be applied to public and possibly public/private projects that would contribute to a public art fund.

“I want to figure out a way to be more intentional and strategic about our investment in arts and culture,” he said.

The effort behind a Lansing Arts Commission started after Lansing was unqualified as a location for a Sense of Place grant commissioned by the Lansing Economic Area Partnership because it didn’t have a formal board to oversee its administration. Lansing is apart from communities like East Lansing, St. Johns, DeWitt, DeWitt Township, Mason, Meridian Township, Delta Township and Delhi Township without such an entity.

Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said she supports using public money to pay for art “in theory,” but that the amount set aside would “depend on the budget year. I don’t know about a certain percentage.”

“It’s an interesting question to ask when we’re recovering from budget problems.”

Councilwoman Carol Wood said she doesn’t oppose establishing a board or commission to facilitate projects. But she is “not sure” whether she supports setting aside public money, mainly because she is unaware of any other city board that receives money allocated from the city budget.

A General Services Committee meeting is scheduled for April 21 to take up the ordinance.

“I would love to hear from the public about their thoughts on this sort of thing,” Yorko said. “I’ve been a big supporter of public art for a very long time. I also want to be very careful about our budget.”