When, if ever, is public art a good use of taxpayers’ money?

That’s today’s question on MPRnewsQ, in light of the fact that the St. Paul City Council is considering whether to dedicate funds to the creation and maintenance of public art.

The debate around public art funding has been simmering of late, with Governor Pawlenty criticizing Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak for spending half a million dollars on public art drinking fountains. Rybak’s office responded the amount of money is a wise investment given the revenue the arts generate for the city.

Time and time again public art has been shown to play a key role in the quality of life of a community.

So what’s the right answer? Today’s question has already provoked some interesting responses.

Melinda Childs writes:

Art and culture is always an easy target in times of economic hardship but many would argue that it is these times when we need art and culture the most as a way to give ourselves perspective and to create dialog and a sense of community.

Kevin Watters counters:

This question hits at the root of “what is government for?” and “How big should government be?” I think government should not be in the business of spending YOUR discretionary income.

Non-controversial art is entertainment. People support what they enjoy being entertained with by paying to see it. We do not have the ‘right’ to ‘free’, government sponsored entertainment.

Aaron Perleberg falls inbetween the two camps:

This is a classic debate of cost vs benefit; which I am sure will produce some strong differing opinions. When the people vote on the matter, as they did in the 2008 constitutional amendment, it is the perfect example of when public art is a good use. The people had the opportunity to voice their opinion about how much money & what it would go towards. When the people have a chance to speak, I think it’s great use of public art. When appointed bureaucrats in appointed positions start dictating when & where – then I don’t think it is a good use of public dollars.

Where do you fall? When would you want your taxpayer dollars spent on public art?

  • I fear there are children that grow up without ever seeing art. They might think of the world as plain, unadorned, grey, industrial, concrete, bland. Art spurs the imagination. Art helps us dream of a better world. Public art is an incredibly valuable investment, if only so that citizens can hope, and feel happy.

  • While I certainly believe in the intrinsic value of art to spur dialogue and to help us understand and interpret our world; there are many other reasons to support art, especially public art.

    There are very real economic and community development reasons for public art – it brings business, people, energy and activity to a neighborhood. Same reason we hang flowers from the light poles, landscape the medians and put up holiday lights. These are the things that make a town look alive and vibrant – a place you might want to go to have a meal, open a business or entice employees to your headquarters. Without them our downtowns would be vast concrete wastelands…hardly a good path to economic recovery.

  • Christine McCann

    Commissioned art means paid artists, which means employment. Now why would that be bad in an economic climate as we are in currently? Artists need employment just as much as any factory worker, lawyer, bus driver, teacher, or waitress. Employment of one’s skills is beneficial to a slumped economy. That is my first point.

    My second point would be: what about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created by FDR as a part of the New Deal in 1939? The obvious comparison is to the recent economic stimulus bill which also seeks to promote employment. The WPA is well-known to have both put people to work as well as beautified many cities, towns, and natural areas in the process. This was done by building unique bridges, buildings, walkways, and much more. Workers were both trained and employed to apply both basic building and artistic skills.

    Of course, these 2 points are only 2 of MANY reasons to support public art. Remember public “art” comes in many forms, from sculpture (as people tend to think of), to murals, to colorful, planted walkways, to the preservation and maintenance of historic and beautiful already-standing structures.

  • Funding public arts is like how a community gets up, gets dressed, and presents itself to the world.

    It’s how I teach students about science – through art projects that express the concept they are learning, – the Big Bang to the mechanisms that fuel evolution.

    Art is how a community identify’s itself. It’s it’s signature and sense of what this group of people is about and values. I’d like to think that I live in a place that uses both sides of their brains to have a FULL understanding of the world around them. I want to LIVE in a society who cares about aesthetics, rather than how many highways it has. I want to live in a place that encourages creativity so perhaps we can find creative solutions to our transit problems – rather than the same old – and no longer working solution.

    It will be a new creative mind that will give us our new solutions to the problems that currently exist.

    Not funding the arts is the equivalent of a community who fails to brush ones teeth and get dressed in the morning. It’s a community in apocalypse – cut throat survival and the demise of all others around. It fails to use both sides of it’s brain, it fails to be a community, it fails to be civilized.