Editorial: Is it time to rethink the city’s public art program?

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It is not every community that you can go to a city commission meeting and have an art criticism class break out.

But as you’ve surely surmised, Lawrence is not any community. Thus, city commissioners recently found themselves discussing a $340,000 proposal to build a piece of public art near the city’s new police headquarters in northwest Lawrence. In a majority of the communities in Kansas, the discussion probably would have been about whether $340,000 should be spent on a piece of public art for a somewhat little-visited area of town.

That wasn’t the conversation at all in Lawrence, though. Instead, commissioners debated whether the art piece was sending an unintentional message of support for police surveillance. The gazebo-like piece included some eye-shaped features, and there was debate about the message those eyes sent. As far as art discussions by politicians go, this one was pretty good. Almost certainly better than such a conversation would have been at the White House. The president would have just suggested a pair of aviator shades for the eyes and called it good.

If you think this is heading toward an argument to abandon the city’s public art program — which basically sets aside money for public art when a public building is constructed — you should check your map again. Yes, Dorothy, you are still in Kansas, but more importantly, you are in Lawrence. The public art program isn’t going anywhere in Lawrence.

It has been long established that Lawrence loves art. But, does it love it smartly?

Maybe the community can have a conversation about whether we’re spending this public art money in the best ways for art. While the community can easily say it loves art, it doesn’t always easily show. It is not like hundreds of people come to an unveiling of one of these public art pieces. And, likely many Lawrence artists would attest that it would be very difficult to make a living off the art that they sell in Lawrence galleries alone. Or, even at a more simple level, do you think many of your friends could tell you where Lawrence’s public pieces of art are located? Could they direct a visitor to a few of them?

Surely there is agreement that $340,000 is a significant sum. That money is already gone, as the city has approved the project. But there will be another big building project someday that produces a sizable amount for public art. Before that day arrives, it may be worth having a conversation about new strategies for spending the public art money. A few questions worth asking include:

• Would it be wise to stockpile several years worth of public art funding to commission a much larger piece that could be erected in a much more highly visible part of the city?

• Does the art have to be permanent, or could the money be used to pay for a truly fantastic, national caliber exhibit at one of our many fine museums or the Lawrence Arts Center?

• Can performance art be part of the equation? If so, would it be appropriate to use the money to pay for a concert, or maybe even a multiweek theatrical production that would attract people from throughout the region?

• Would it be appropriate to use the money to create better art infrastructure in Lawrence? Is there a way the city could attract more art buyers to the community, which in turn should make it more likely that artists live and create here?

Maybe the true art lovers feel like some of these questions already have been answered. But a big takeaway from the recent approval of the $340,000 police station piece was how little the public seemed engaged or excited by any of it.

That doesn’t mean that the art won’t be great. But it is disappointing nonetheless; $340,000 is a lot of money. It certainly should be enough to buy a little buzz. As a town that loves art, we seemingly should be excited about creating some.

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