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Cities find new ways to protect public art

In 1996, Atlanta installed 18 pieces of public artwork as part of preparations for the Summer Olympics. Since then, almost half of the bronze plaques identifying that artwork have gone missing, says Robert Witherspoon, the project supervisor for the city’s public art program.

Atlanta has subsequently invested in stainless steel plaques for $500 each to replace some of the more expensive bronze and aluminum plaques that were stolen. Witherspoon says the remaining price tag for what needs to be fixed in the city’s total public-arts collection is more than $600,000 — money which he says is hard to come by these days.

Atlanta is one of the many cities in an era of tight budgets having trouble affording the routine restoration and maintenance for public-art projects as well as occasional instances of vandalism and theft.

“I think it’s a national problem and every municipality is facing this problem as they are faced with the budget issues that are common today,” said Margot Berg, the director of the Philadelphia Public Art Program.

Philadelphia has been able to access some funds from the city’s capital budget, but Berg said some cities’ public-art commissions are forced to compete with health safety services for operating budget funds.

Liesel Fenner, public-art program manager for Americans for the Arts — a non-profit organization committed to preserving the arts — says a city project such as a library or civic center or park often has 1%-2% of its budget set aside for public artwork.

A city’s municipal arts agency budget usually has 3%-4% annually for public-art conservation and maintenance, she says, but it may not be enough.

“All cities are being hard-pressed to maintain their works,” Fenner said. “Some of those funds have been exhausted or capped. … It can become a triage — what pieces must we address first? What can we do on-site to repair the work?”

In fiscal 2008-09, Phoenix had $63,000 collected from city capital projects, private development or city-improvement projects to fund public art. Today, it’s $29,000. In the same time period, the budget in Tempe, Ariz., went from about $90,600 to about $7,600.

Tempe artist Laurie Lundquist, who has created about 15 public-art pieces for cities across the area, calls the increase of vandalism “disheartening.”

“We sort of do live and learn about vandalism and how to design not only for the space to be safe but to be as vandal-proof as possible,” she said.

When Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture was erected in 2002 at Scottsdale’s Civic Center, many people balked at its $311,000 price tag. Now, it gets so much attention as people crawl all over it, the city spends more than $5,000 a year to keep it looking good.

As public-art agencies try to stay vibrant, they must take care of existing art or risk becoming generic places, says Betsy Fahlman, an Arizona State University art history professor.

“Public art helps create an identity and a quality of life for each community,” Fahlman said. “If you don’t protect it, you’re not protecting the investment.”

Keith Lachowicz, the public arts collections manager for the Regional Arts & Culture Council in Portland, Ore., says the city has to “decide what the biggest issues are and come up with some creative solutions for some of our other pieces. It’s tough in this economy when funds are cut back,” he said.

To help combat this problem, Portland has created the free Public Art PDX application for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch to showcase the city’s collection. It allows users to locate the more than 400 pieces of public art. The app uses a map with color-coded pin points that, when clicked on, shows a picture of the work and allows users to check in to the site. “People can say: ‘I was here and noticed the plaque was missing,’” he said.

Jonathan Kuhn, the director of art and antiquities for New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, says his department conducts annual maintenance , which is many times carried out by his own staff.

“(We take) existing city-funded staff and deploy them … so that we’re maximizing those resources, and we seek additional private resources,” Kuhn said.

Contributing: Connie Cone Sexton and Sonja Haller, The Arizona Republic

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