Put Your Money Where Your Art Is

Committee to explore how to spend 2 percent for public art surplus funds

The city has something akin to an "all dressed up, nowhere to go" issue with its public art program. After setting aside 2 percent of Capital Improvement Bonds since 2006 (and 1 percent for two decades before that), a surplus of $360,000 sits in the fund for public art. All that money, and no art to spend it on.

No art? In a city like Santa Fe? Surely not.

Yet as a practical matter, the rules that govern the program, which to date has focused on site-specific installations, has left lots of artists and galleries out of the mix.

The Art in Public Places Committee, which advises the city's Arts Commission on where and how to spend funds for public art, now says it's looking at new ways to connect that money with artists.

Between the backlog in funds, recent staff turnover and milestones like the 10th year for the Art on Loan program, which displays privately owned artwork on city property, and the 30th for the city's funding for public art on the whole, this could be a fine time to commence efforts to re-evaluate how these programs run.

"I think we're looking to expand the ways that we acquire public art, really with the goal of engaging more people in the process, whether it's artists, young people, the community in general [or] other city employees," says Debra Garcia y Griego, director of the Arts Commission. "We have a really strong foundation, and it's just a really good moment to pause and look at that."

On July 29, the City Council directed the Arts Commission to develop a long-term cultural plan to be presented in one year. The nine-member appointed commission implements the Art in Public Places program but looks for input from a seven-person advisory committee of artists, arts professionals and community members to guide decisions. It's the committee that gives yeas and nays to pieces proposed by the commission for consideration in the city's public art collection. The Arts Commission has also tasked the committee with looking at how other public art programs acquire work and engage the public.

Historically, Santa Fe's Art in Public Places program has done almost exclusively site-specific commissions: They select artists to complete pieces on request for a set location. Favorites for blending art and functionality in public space include bus stops on Airport Road (the shelter is a bronze tree offering shade via a framework of leaves) and at the Railyard, which features a stained-glass backing.

But site-specific commissions can also be a time- and resource-intensive approach to public art, Garcia y Griego says. The approach also cuts out a lot of artists who don't do commission work and a lot of galleries that might otherwise want to get involved. Particularly since the public art program began partnering with the Public Works Department, there's been a slowdown in projects approved: just four in the last two years.

Garcia y Griego attributes the surplus in part to a shortage of staff time to work with the committee on developing project ideas and managing them as they move forward. There's only enough money to support 10-15 percent of a full-time position, and as the city creates new policies and procedures around how bond money is spent (no doubt fallout from the recent Parks Bond audit), providing that increased transparency will also require additional staff time.

Among the options for new approaches to public art in Santa Fe is increased use of the Community Art Gallery in the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, incorporate ephemeral arts like dance, music and performance art that aren't allowed by an ordinance that specifically demands collectable pieces, and open the program to the new media art world. Questions about whether purchasing art will be an option or artists can be supported through micro-grants will also likely be on the table.

Smaller grants for smaller projects could make a big difference, says artist and Art in Public Places Committee member Matthew Chase-Daniel, but having money behind the program—and making sure artists know that there are funds available—is key.

"It could create a lot of awareness of the program as a whole. If you put out a call and there's money available, then people become a lot more engaged," Chase-Daniel said during the committee's Sept. 3 meeting.

Given new freedoms, the public art program could go some exciting places before burning through the existing balance.

"That accumulation of funds gives us an opportunity to try out some of these things in a meaningful ways, to really try out purchasing, to try out seeding projects that are driven by the community, and try some new things that are driven by the commission," Garcia y Griego says.

While the public art program may have money in the bank, their hands are tied when it comes to an increasingly pressing need for the city's art collection, valued at $1.8 million: maintenance on some pieces that are now 30 years old.

The way the city ordinance is written, the Art in Public Places funds can be spent only on acquiring art. Basic maintenance, such as general cleaning of a patina, rewaxing bronze sculptures and recoating against graffiti or rust, is left off the books. It's an issue public art programs around the country are running into, Garcia y Griego says. At this point, they need a full assessment of how much work needs to be done and what pieces need to take priority. Whether the city will pursue the ordinance and bond changes needed to allocate a portion of the funds already going to the program to maintenance or pursue additional funds is something the Art in Public Places Committee will be discussing in coming months.

As much as the committee may want to bring itself into the 21st century, embracing some innovations may come easier than others. The committee approved a 6-foot by 8-foot mural painted on the wall facing the back parking lot of the Fort Marcy Community Center, as part of the story told in a short film shot for the Sundance Native Labs Program. The artist, Rose B Simpson, has since suggested the wall be opened up for other graffiti artists as a permission wall, a technique employed by cities across the country as a means of attracting those artists to one location and discouraging them from using other surfaces. In the film, the mural painting is a pivotal moment for a young Native woman finding her voice, according to a letter from the film producer asking the city for permission to paint the mural.

Committee conversation hung up on the questions of how to manage what artists put up on that wall and whether they might have some control or at least dialogue with the artists prior to the completion of their work.

"What if it's X-rated? There would be public outcry," Sandra K Deitch said during the committee's monthly meeting. Deitch serves on both the Arts Commission and the Art in Public Places Committee.

The consensus was to invite Simpson to a future meeting to discuss her ideas and how they might balance the self-policing ethos of a permission wall with the sense that, as a taxpayer-funded program, they feel bound by certain restrictions.

"I think this committee is anxious to be responsive while also being accountable and recognizing that we are a city agency and that public art does need to reflect the community that it's in," Garcia y Griego says.

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