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Art Beat

May 26, 2005


Do we need funky bus shelters?
Debating the value, cost of public art


What is "public art"? Does Eureka need a public art policy? Those questions were posed at a last Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting, an event hosted by the Eureka Art and Culture Commission and facilitated by Lynne Baer, a Bay Area art advisor.

Baer, who has worked with several small communities to develop public art policies and to install public art projects, began with a slide show of various kinds of public art, starting with Michelangelo's David in Florence, Italy, and including everything from park benches to large-scale environmental installations.

What was striking was the range of public art. It is surprising what a creative person or group of people can do to jazz up seemingly mundane items. One "installation" featured arty picnic tables, another was wrapped around a tree, another incorporated a little bridge with steps going up and down it. One table even had a children's slide built into it. Based on experience with my darling 2-year-old, a child's play structure and a place to put food are not necessarily a good mix, but it looked cool.

One community came up with sculptural drums, which look like art and can be banged on by anyone with an inclination to do so. Wouldn't Eureka's merchants love something like that in Old Town? Another city created a series of bus shelters, each unique, include one made from half of a '56 Chevy -- you sit on the back seat to wait for the bus. And then there are the large-scale nature works, like "Watershed," an 88-mile stretch of the Hudson River Valley that includes various installations about the history and environment of the area.

Public art can be a source of civic pride and it often commemorates people or events. It can be functional or controversial or simply pleasing to the eye. Many communities have actively participated in creation of public art works; others simply hire an artist to create a work. Public art can be permanent, as in a commemorative statue or a mural, but it can also be temporary, or even a onetime event, like "The Gates," Christo's recent installation in New York's Central Park.

[bus shelter with old car and canopy] [side view of same bus shelter]

Eureka has quite a lot of public art already, much of which is well known to residents, some of which is pretty obscure, but there is no formal process for planning, implementing and paying for public art installations. Wednesday's meeting was a first step towards creating such a plan.

Of course, there is always the question of why a public art policy is needed. A policy can help clarify many issues involved in planning a public art installation. It can also help eliminate "reinventing the wheel" each time a project is being considered. Public art policy can also stifle spontaneity and make the process unnecessarily cumbersome for artists seeking commissions.

The process for installing public artwork is more involved than it might appear on the surface. There is more to it than simply finding an artist and coming up with an idea. A community should be in reasonable agreement on what kind of art it would like to have, although, as Baer points out, there can never be a guarantee that a piece will not generate controversy.

How to fund the art is another issue. Many communities across the nation have a "Percent for Art" program in which those planning new construction must designate a predetermined percent of their building budget to art, but these programs have their limitations. The Eureka Arts and Culture Commission tried to implement such a program here several years ago and failed. Baer points out that such programs leave art under-funded when times are tough and there is not a lot of new building happening. It also doesn't fund temporary or event public artworks, which can be a vital part of a community. Baer suggests a line item in the city budget, a plan that proves a community's ongoing commitment to the arts.

This idea may be a tough sell for those who feel that the arts are a "frill." We all know that we have to pay for garbage services and street repairs, but it is difficult to put a value on something like public art.

In fact, its value may be best understood by its absence. Common sense tells us that there is a certain quality of life that comes about when you surround yourself with beautiful and interesting things. If we want nice things to look at, we must accept that the creation of those takes planning and funding. It remains to be seen if that planning will be better served by developing a public art policy.

Katherine Almy holds a BA in art history from Humboldt State University and a master's in arts administration from the University of Oregon. She has lived in Humboldt County for over a decade and appreciates the natural beauty of the area as well as the creative spirit of the people here.




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