March 19, 2010

Public Spenders' Soft-Spot for Nonsense

Justin Katz

The "arts community" has drawn pretty tight ideological lines around itself, but there are those of us with pretensions to art, in some medium or other, with a different understanding of the world. As such a one, I think Governor Carcieri was wrong to give in and cancel his plans "to eliminate a program that has produced millions of dollars for high-profile, and sometimes controversial, public art installations across Rhode Island."

That's millions of dollars that have been tacked onto public construction projects as a requirement. Projects like a courthouse sound system playing chirping birds.

Now that the governor has caved, subsidy supporters are targeting his plan to cut the $700,000 of state arts funding from the budget. According to Lt. Gov. Liz Roberts, the "arts economy in Rhode Island" employs 12,000, which means that cutting public funding would cost them each, on average, about $60 per year.

I do agree with the value of having artistic and cultural displays in public spaces, but the following quotation strikes me as missing an important point:

"Public art is a very special thing ... What would the world be like if we removed all of these from our environment? It'd basically be like visiting East Germany prior to the Berlin Wall coming down," Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda told supporters during an afternoon State House ceremony. "It'd be a place without feeling, without emotion, without hope."

I'd be surprised if the state couldn't find artists willing to donate their work for public viewing free of charge or donors willing to pay for art in the public square. If artists are driven, and the local society is desirous, the sharing will manifest.

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Apparently, the RISD president hasn't been to the Pawtucket DMV lately. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a Trabant sitting in one of the cubes.

Posted by: Donald Botts at March 19, 2010 2:58 PM

I suppose this had its genesis in the requirement that 5% of the cost of federal buildings had to be dedicated to art. This sometimes reaches unusual extremes, one might visit the Federal Building in Boston which houses the Bankruptcy Court. In the atrium is an enormous "light fixture". This could only have been created to meet the art budget. There could have been a great deal more floor space without it.

Although I fear being labelled a Philistine, I have never understood why good art cannot support itself. I can easily understand why bad art cannot. Perhaps artists are simply wedded to the idea of living in a garret. On the other hand, although his art is a mystery to me, Picasso did well during his lifetime.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at March 19, 2010 3:11 PM

Does the Governor not change his mind on anything? He was cutting state employee wages, but then backed down and gave deferred days off. He was keeping money from car taxes, then changed his mind and sent it to the cities and towns. Sure there is plenty of blame to go around to the General Assembly, but Carcieri's leadership is laughable at this point.

Posted by: Tara at March 19, 2010 4:04 PM

Between subsidies for the arts, subsidies for movie production, and subsidies for historic preservation, I think Rhode Islanders should step back, smell the coffee and realize that something stinks.

The right way to build an economy isn't to subsidize all sorts of stuff, it's to back off and let artists, production companies, and developers do what they do naturally (within reason, of course). 'Economy' happens when people meet a need for a product or service, not when the state finally gets around to subsidizing something.

I support the arts, I donate bits here and there, I go to see live shows, and I buy art when I can afford it. But I don't believe that the state needs to be so involved.

"Public art is a very special thing ... What would the world be like if we removed all of these from our environment? It'd basically be like visiting East Germany prior to the Berlin Wall coming down,"

Actually... Having the state prop up an industry by commissioning expensive art from 'connected' artists that the people themselves can't afford seems pretty 'Soviet' to me. The state buildings and subways of Moscow were considered some of the most well-kept and adorned in the world. I really don't like to be the guy to draw a 'Rhode Island = Soviet Union' line, but Maeda is wrong about that. Arts are evidence of a vibrant society with time and money to spend on enrichment and leisure, not a precursor to said society.

Think about this: Every dollar break given to the arts is another dollar that has to come from the pocket of a plumber, or a cop, a business owner, or a twenty-something trying to buy a house here.

Can Rhode Island really expect that the same cast of characters on Smith Street is capable of managing the entire state's economy, in addition to the day-to-day of running a government? Can we keep on going with the idea that the government can sucker-punch every business, and then offer band aids to those who are 'good' industries?

Posted by: mangeek at March 19, 2010 5:37 PM