Public art ignites controversy, not to mention the economy

by DGO Web Administrator

My favorite part of my bike commute down Florida Road is the roundabout at Chapman Hill. Sure, it’s the one spot where my nimble bike and I can outrace any car, but it’s the sculpture in the center of the roundabout – “Endurance,” five 800-pound cyclists made of rusty steel bars – that get me every day, how when you move around them they seem to animate, set into motion by means of optical illusion.

I got thinking about public art this week after a story in The Durango Herald reminded me that the city of Durango has allocated $24,000 for three sculptures to be placed around town. From 117 submissions, the pool has been pared to seven, and the city has invited the community to weigh in.

Of the seven sculptures, some are kinetic, some representational, some abstract, some 14-feet tall. And holy-hell, are some people pissed.

The arguments are typically these: (1) Don’t waste my tax dollars on something frivolous that you call art and I call a government-funded scrap heap. (2) Fix roads and sidewalks first, and then, from what’s left, I guess you could buy up some scrap heaps for the amusement of liberals. (3) Don’t make me look at that (s)crap. (4) Oh, and by the way, you artists need to get jobs, you teat-sucking slackers. (5) Hey, why not put up another cowboy sculpture?

Beyond the puzzling vitriol slung at art and artists for the perceived lack of value and contributions, I think these arguments are short-sighted and fail to consider the benefits of public art, many that cannot be quantified monetarily.

First, no one will agree on how every dollar of the city’s budget is allocated (a budget of roughly $70 million, btw, meaning that for every $1,000 spent, 34 cents will go to public sculptures. The horror). However, there are major long-term economic indicator studies like the ongoing Arts & Economic Prosperity study by Americans for the Arts that show how the arts and art-friendly communities reap huge economic benefits in areas like tourism and nightlife while attracting new, dynamic businesses and young, educated workers.

Second, not everyone is going to agree on the aesthetic value of a piece public art no matter what it is. And to me, that is exactly the point. We shouldn’t agree. When everyone agrees on something – art especially – that usually means it’s safe, and safe usually means boring, and boring means indifference, which is the worst thing an artist can encounter.

Further, art in public spaces can inspire, it can create conversation – positive and negative. Public art should challenge us and force us to look around and consider our surroundings. It interacts with our sense of space and aesthetic. Or it can, at least, if you approach it openly, setting aside preconceptions and judgment.

Beyond all that, public art simply makes this a nice place to live. I applaud whoever wrote that $24,000 into the budget for having foresight to build a community that values beauty and imagination in the face of the austerity-minded. Much of the effects of public art are intangible. Function isn’t everything, and not everything can earn its keep on a spreadsheet.

When I ride through that roundabout on Florida, I don’t think about who made the almost 4-year-old sculpture, how much it cost, where the money came from to purchase it or how much anyone else “likes” it or considers it “art.” I only know that for a moment I forget how irked I am that the city hasn’t street-sweeped the gravel-filled bike lanes or repainted the lane markers in a while. I give the rusty bikers a knowing nod, maybe a short smile. I get a little boost of optimism and beauty from that sculpture, a shot of inspiration that slingshots me through the roundabout and on my way about town.

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