State of Madison’s art
Advocates see a need for larger investments in art
If Madison wants a thriving art scene, advocates see a need for a larger city investment in public art. As it turns out, that’s about to happen.
Even as a child, Karin Wolf was surrounded by art. Growing up in St. Louis, her early years were filled with murals, sculptures and statues of varying sizes, shapes and colors around town.
From the huge metal plates of Richard Serra’s “Twain” to “Lindy Squared,” Robert Fishbone and Sarah Linquist’s pixelated portrait of legendary pilot Charles Lindbergh — and, of course, the enormous, unmistakable St. Louis national landmark, the Gateway Arch, by Eero Saarinen — Wolf’s hometown is known for an abundance of creative works.
“Art just seemed to be everywhere,” she remembers. “I grew up with it.”
What she saw most was the city’s so-called public art — pieces in shared, common spaces that are usually outdoors and are free and accessible to all.
“Public art was so integrated in my vision that I took it very much for granted,” she says. “I also grew up a mile from Laumeier Sculpture Park. That’s where I hung out as a teenager. And nobody went there — I had all the art to myself.”
A couple of years later, when Wolf came to Madison attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1986, she made an artful yet unexpected discovery while biking around Lake Monona. “On that route, I found George Segal’s ‘Gay Liberation,'” she says of the sculpture installed in Orton Park until 1991, when it moved the following year to New York City.
“I sat there looking at this piece, wondering, ‘How does something like this get here? Who does this?'” continues Wolf. “At the time, I didn’t even know it was a job, but I knew I wanted to figure out how art got into spaces and I knew I wanted to do that.”
Fast forward 20 years to 2006 when Wolf found herself doing just that — figuring out how to get art into public places — after she took the job of arts program administrator for the city of Madison.
Now, about 13 years later, Wolf remains in that role. Her primary duties are to administer the city’s arts grants, commission new public art projects — both temporary and permanent — and work with the Madison Arts Commission to produce programing that includes music, poetry and other things that fall under the umbrella of art.
That’s a lot for one person to handle, Wolf admits. She says cutting through the bureaucratic red tape of city government can be frustrating and challenging, especially when it comes to securing funding for art projects.
Despite the sense of community and placemaking that public art creates, it takes people like Wolf to build support for it in the halls of government. She keeps making the case that, compared to other cities that also aspire to be cultural meccas, Madison’s public art collection “is a bit thin. We have fewer pieces, far fewer pieces than one might expect.”
Less Money, Less Art
Madison’s art deficit is, of course, related to money.
“For a city of Madison’s size and economic vitality, I think public art is not as supported here as it is in other cities that we get compared to,” says local artist Gail Simpson. “Cities like Austin and Portland have much more economic support for the arts.”
Comparisons like these can be complicated, however, due to vastly different populations and funding sources.
The Greater Portland area’s art programs, for instance, are managed by the Regional Arts and Culture Council, or RACC, which functions much like the Madison Arts Commission, or MAC. The RACC 2018 annual report listed public funding of nearly $8 million.
Last year, the city of Madison budget allocated $282,000 in new funding to be spread through MAC’s different programs. The city’s 2019 budget included $357,000 of new funding for the commission.
The Portland metro area, with a population of 2.4 million residents, is 10 times the size of Madison. Still, if MAC received funding proportionate to that of Portland’s RACC (based on Madison’s smaller population), it would have a budget of $800,000.
It’s also worth noting that RACC has a staff of 39, including four employees devoted solely to public art, in addition to its 21-member board of directors.
A comparison between Madison and Austin — which is almost four times the size of Madison with a population of 950,000 residents — shows an even more drastic gap in funding.
Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, which awards contracts and grants for arts-related programming like dance, music, theater and public art, has a staff of 20 and was set to spend about $11 million in 2018.
If MAC received funding proportionate to its Austin counterpart, it would have received $2.94 million last year — more than 10 times the $282,000 in funding.
On public art alone, Portland and Austin’s art programs spent $1.4 and $1.6 million in 2018, respectively.
A 2020 Fund Infusion
While all of this may sound bleak for the fate and future of the city’s public art scene, there is hope on the horizon.
Beginning in 2020, the city of Madison will implement a new Percent for Art ordinance that creates a designated funding stream for public art projects.
“We really want to make sure that we’re promoting public art as a city,” says Common Council President Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, the measure’s lead sponsor. “[Establishing the] Percent for Art ordinance [is] the city going on record saying that public art is important.”
The Percent for Art ordinance works just about as simply as it sounds. It mandates that whenever the city invests in new capital projects costing more than $5 million, 1% of the project budget will be set aside for public art projects. These new funds can be used to create and integrate a new piece of public art into the construction or remodeling of a project or can be used later.
Of course, there are strict parameters and not all projects qualify — for example, sewer upgrades and parking garages will not be adorned with art. But aside from those exceptions, the program has the chance to generate significant cash flow.
Signed into law in October 2017, the art-funding ordinance was written to take effect two years later. Estimates show that had it taken effect immediately, it would have generated $364,000 for new public art. Had it been in place in 2018, eligible projects would have included the Monroe Street reconstruction (which did include stanzas of poetry etched in the new sidewalks), the construction of the new Fire Station 14 on the southeast side and the Madison Public Market. Cumulatively, these projects would have generated $342,350. Had construction begun for the city’s new vehicle fleet service headquarters, which is moving to make room for the public market, before October of this year, the project would have qualified for the Percent for Art ordinance and generated about $292,000.
The first true glimpse at Percent for Art funding will come in November when the city’s 2020 projects are finalized.
While some may view publicly funded art projects as a waste of taxpayer money, that criticism is misguided, says local artist and art professor Gail Simpson, who has created public art here and around the country.
“If [a government agency] gives me a budget to spend on artwork, I’m going to spend that in Wisconsin. I’m going to use local fabricators, local suppliers and local subcontractors,” she says. “Yes, I will pay myself a small percentage of that budget, but then I will also pay taxes on that money. All of that money goes right back into the tax base and local economy.”
Simpson says tourism is another economic benefit of a standout public art scene. She points to Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” by artist Sir Anish Kapoor. Nicknamed “The Bean,” because of its signature shape, it reflects the city skyline on its polished metal surface and attracts countless visitors.
“That’s one of the major tourist attractions every city wishes they had. And a lot of cities are looking at commissioning work like that,” she says. “It’s a destination piece; people make a special trip just to see it. And then they go to restaurants, they stay in hotels and they do other things in the community.”
Madison Arts Commission public art committee chairwoman Bethany Jurewicz, who is also the co-founder of the pop-up food and art festival known as Makeshift, says the Percent for Art ordinance can make the city more artist-friendly.
“The public art scene in Madison is difficult. It is not easy to accomplish much in the ways of public art here,” says Jurewicz. “Putting money toward public art is necessary if you want public art. Paying artists as professionals is necessary if you want a thriving art scene. You could choose not to have these things, but then don’t claim you want them.”
She adds, “Things change a lot when there is funding dedicated to the arts — we’re going to see a big shift.”
Most cities known for thriving art scenes and expansive public art displays have had dedicated funding sources for decades. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Seattle were some of the first, starting in the 1960s and ’70s, followed by places like Portland and Austin in the ’80s and ’90s. St. Louis got its program in 2011. The state of Wisconsin had an art percent program but it was discontinued by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011. Federally, the Art for Architecture program, which allocates one-half of 1% of the costs of construction projects to public art installations, was created in 1963.
“We’re very late to the game in getting in on this,” notes Wolf.
Functional public art
Toni Sikes, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the international art commissioning company CODAworx, says programs similar to Percent for Art — and the resulting public art — have been pivotal for many cities across the country.
“Some of the biggest public art commissions are happening around infrastructure and transportation, like airports and train stations and subway stations,” Sikes says, adding that there is great versatility in projects. “It doesn’t just have to be a sculpture — it can be benches or artists [who] are also making incredible lighting. It can be things you budget for anyway.”
Sikes also notes that some cities are increasing their art funding to 2% of government building improvements and that other places in the country have even begun requiring that large private construction projects set aside money for public art. “[These mandates have] really caused an explosion of art,” she says.
Some private developers are also taking it upon themselves to add art to their design and construction, says Sikes. One local example is the “Waterfall Mural” by artist Jonathan Brown on the front side of the remodeled AT&T building on the 300 block of West Washington Avenue.
Looking forward, Wolf and MAC members are overjoyed with the chance to beautify the city with new public art pieces.
“I think that as a community we’re very convinced that public art is an amenity that expresses who we are and that we want more of it,” says Wolf. “And now, every time there’s a new public facility, we’ll get new public art — it will become an expectation.”
Steven Potter is a Madison-based reporter.
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