Will the Economic Turmoil Affect Public Art Programs?

Karin Wulf had some good news to report: a proposal made by a member of the Board of Estimates in early October to eliminate the City of Madison’s (Wisconsin) $30,000 expenditure on public art, part of an effort to trim the municipal budget, was soundly defeated. “I think there is a recognition that public art is good for our economy,” Wulf, administrator for the city’s arts commission, said. This is what passes for good news these days on the public art front—something bad didn’t happen, and a small outlay wasn’t slashed.

Wulf certainly received better news than Kim Snyder. The public art coordinator for the City of Greeley, Colorado, learned that the Greeley city council voted to rescind the allocation of $600,000, or one percent of water and sewer construction and renovation expenditures, for public art projects, deciding to use the money instead to purchase additional water for the city. That’s not the only money that goes to public art in Greeley; there is a one percent for art statute for other capital construction projects, but the city council reduced that amount to one-half of one percent. And, according to Snyder, “We’re not expecting any new capital construction projects right now because of the city’s budget crunch.”

City by city, state by state, public art administrators are looking with concern and consternation at their prospects for buying and commissioning new artworks. Not all vistas are dark—percent for art programs tend to be relatively secure because projects are already underway and changes in the use of money to acquire artworks would require a legislative act—but everyone is seeing the same signs. The turmoil in the financial markets has led to reduced investment income on the part of foundations and individuals, higher borrowing costs for businesses, and less disposable income for consumers. City and state governments that rely on income, property, and sales taxes for their revenues are already being affected by the general slowdown in the economy, and their ability to pay for new projects, capital or otherwise, is diminished.

“We’re getting word that various city and state government agencies around the country are instituting spending freezes,” said Liesel Fenner, manager of public art for the Washington, DC-based Americans for the Arts. Many states may be looking to reduce their spending over the next year, and some have already instituted spending and hiring freezes. Idaho Governor Butch Otter, for instance, mandated a one-percent government spending cut, while Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. ordered a four-day work week for 17,000 of the state’s 23,000 employees. The governors of Connecticut and Washington State set hiring freezes, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger laid off up to 22,000 part-time and temporary state workers and cut the pay of 200,000 others to the minimum wage of $6.55 per hour. New York State Governor David Patterson ordered both a hiring freeze and a seven-percent reduction in state spending, and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has frozen state spending and raised highway tolls.

Colorado offers an example of government cutbacks affecting public art projects: the state legislature had already approved $184 million for 28 building projects around the state, the majority of which would have triggered percent for art projects. The expected shortfall in the state’s fiscal 2009 budget led the governor’s office to postpone a number of those projects, totaling $85 million, which reduces the number of planned public art commissions from 18 to six. “I’ve had artists calling me,” said Jil Rosentrater, Art in Public Places director at the Colorado Council on the Arts, “asking if their commissions are going to be cancelled. They’ve already spent a lot of time on them, so what should they do? I tell them that nothing has been cancelled yet, only put on hold, so keep working. I hope I’m not leading them astray.”

Few states have cancelled or postponed capital projects, and the commissioned artwork tied to them continues to move forward. “We have 15 projects currently underway,” said Erin McLennon, program director for Percent for Art in Public Places at the Minnesota State Arts Board. John Firman, consultant to the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation, noted that “five or six art commissions have been completed, and three are in progress. There has been no move to cut our budget.” Tamara Dimitri, program specialist in the Connecticut Commission on the Arts’ Art in Public Spaces program, also noted that “we have a lot of projects in the works, and they are moving forward.” Perhaps the most prosperous percent for art program in the country is administered by the Louisiana Division of the Arts, whose program director, Dana La Fonta, noted that “there is no cutback in capital projects here. We’re in the midst of a building boom, post-Katrina and Hurricane Gustav. We are an anomaly compared to…the rest of the country.” Governments traditionally have adopted capital projects and the improvement of infrastructure as a means of battling economic recession (or depression) since these endeavors put people to work, according to Cynthia Nikitin, vice-president of the Manhattan-based consulting agency Project for Public Places: “Art commissions tied to these projects will continue to survive.”

Private funds for public art projects may become tighter, though. “We may have to adjust as the situation becomes clear,” said Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, which sponsors and raises money for between 10 and 12 temporary public art installations every year. The organization, which was founded in 1977, obtains less than 10 percent of its funding from city, state, and federal government sources, she noted, so its ability to operate is not tied to their straitened circumstances. On the other hand, there is little appetite to eliminate public art funding on the part of legislators, mayors, and governors after seeing vivid proof that these projects can generate substantial revenue. For instance, Olafur Eliasson’s four waterfall installations in Lower Manhattan, which were on view June 26 through October 13, 2008, are reported to have attracted 1.4 million visitors who spent $69 million.