Public art is great, and Lawrence’s investment in art to accent various public buildings around town has been money well spent.
The city’s Percent for Art program, which allows a portion of spending on public works projects to be dedicated to purchasing art, has resulted in many visual delights in Lawrence. Sculptures like “Flame” at City Hall and “Mobility” at the Lawrence Visitors Center are attractive and send the message that the city and its residents appreciate and value the arts.
That being said, however, it makes no sense to extend the Percent for Arts programs to street projects, such as traffic roundabouts.
Last week, the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission decided to ask the Lawrence City Commission to include an art project in the design for the new roundabout planned for Wakarusa Drive at its intersection with Legends/Inverness. The Percent for Arts says the city may set aside up to 2 percent of the cost of all capital improvement projects for acquisition and installation of art in public places. Its definition of capital improvements includes city buildings and renovations, parking facilities and lots, park improvements, park land and recreation facilities.
Routine street projects aren’t eligible, city officials say, but the cultural arts commission sees roundabouts as a gray area: not exactly parks, but more than routine street work. The roundabout project is consistent with the “spirit” of the Percent for Arts program, they say. Besides, said one commissioner, “We don’t have enough opportunities,” to spend city money on public art.
Once again, public art is great. It’s wonderful to have artwork that people can enjoy when they visit a park or are stopped at a major intersection. However, when drivers are negotiating the new multi-lane roundabout on Wakarusa Drive, they need to keep their eyes on the road, not on a lovely sculpture in the middle of the circle. The same goes for pedestrians at the intersection. Traffic moving around the circle would prevent anyone from getting too close to the artwork and, to the extent it captures people’s attention, it could be a dangerous distraction.
As part of their discussion arts commissioners also suggested that the Percent for Arts program might be applied to city trails projects. That idea deserves consideration. Unlike people driving around a roundabout, people walking on a trail have a good opportunity to view and enjoy an artistic endeavor.
But, please, not on the roundabout. Whether or not you are a fan of this popular new scheme for traffic control, installing artwork in the eye of the circle would not be a good use of city money.