Editorial: The Politics of Public Art

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 30, 2004

Recent discussions before the Civic Arts Commission and in these pages remind me of what I learned in my stint in the 1970s as an intern at the California Arts Council, when Jerry Brown was still playing his Governor Moonbeam role and I was a law student. The council’s executive director was the redoubtable Eloise Pickard Smith, a painter and political activist. Among the illustrious commissioners were actor Peter Coyote, poet Gary Snyder and Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino. Watching from the sidelines as these politically savvy artists allocated public funding for the arts taught me many lessons. The most surprising thing I learned was how much many members of the public hate public art. Or rather, how much they hate certain kinds of public art. Or most specifically, how they actively dislike large non-representational sculptures plopped into public spaces. We got letters, we got lots and lots of letters, almost all complaining about such installations.  

A couple of decades have passed since then, but I don’t think the public mind has changed much on this topic, as a recent letter to the Daily Planet decrying the latest Downtown Berkeley public sculpture additions shows. The letter writer suggested that the public should be allowed to vote on such projects, or perhaps that they should be canceled altogether when the economy is slow.  

My guess is that voters would have vetoed 90 percent of the public sculpture proposals which have been funded in the last 20 years. The Vaillancourt Fountain on the Embarcadero in San Francisco still generates many outraged letters when it’s mentioned in the press. 

A subsequent Planet letter writer opposed voting on specific projects, but spoke out vigorously for the concept of publicly supported art, even in hard times, pointing to the many fine projects completed by the federal Works Progress Adminstration during the great depression which the public still enjoys, such as the reliefs on the Berkeley Community Theater. The two letter writers aren’t really in disagreement. Americans aren’t against art, but they do care a lot about what kind of art it is. WPA-style artistic enhancements to needed public projects seldom are opposed, even today. But large standalone works of art-for-art’s-sake which are perceived as self-righteous attempts to “improve” popular taste have always been resented by a large segment of the population.  

One important question is how much public support should go to art as process, and how much to art as product. The current building boom in Berkeley has created a fund of more than half a million dollars to be used for the commission and purchase of public art products. This is supported by a law requiring allocation of 1.5 percent of a new building’s cost to public art, both on and off the building site, and it has paid for most of the visible new art constructs in downtown Berkeley, the ones which have been the focus of considerable public ire. Grants to individuals and organizations for their own work are about half as much as the public art total, on the other hand, and are seldom controversial. 

Speakers at the recent hearing on the Civic Arts Commission’s draft cultural plan did complain about the gap between government funding of public visual art products and support for operating expenses and space for performing arts, including theater and music. Others faulted the draft plan for neglecting the question of preserving existing spaces which are now used for both visual arts and performing arts, while lots of money goes to lavish building projects for already-flush organizations. Another bone of contention was the practice of making allocations in a tiered structure as a percentage of an organization’s operating budget, which was thought to favor rich organizations like the Berkeley Rep. The ill-conceived and badly administered “cultural bonus” for developers was roundly excoriated by all. The finished plan, which the Civic Arts Commission passed on Wednesday, doesn’t completely answer these complaints, but some improvements were made. 

As the city’s budget gets tighter and tighter, it will be important to continue the open public dialogue about what kinds of arts endeavors government should be supporting. Otherwise, sentiments like those of our letter writer who opined that “we can’t really afford to buy art at this economically stressed time anyway” will gain more adherents among the voters. 

—Becky O’Malley