San Diego Survey Reveals Public Art Funding Weaknesses

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San Diego Survey Reveals Public Art Funding Weaknesses

“Unconditional Surrender” sculpture by Seward Johnson, on the San Diego waterfront (Photo by Martha Jimenez via Flickr)

San Diego boasts about 500 pieces of public art in its collection but because of the way the city funds those works, they’re unequally distributed across neighborhoods and often difficult for the public to access, reports Voice of San Diego. As part of a series focused on the city’s public art, the publication has mapped San Diego’s entire collection of sculptures, paintings, installations, and other artworks and taken a look at the percent-for-art policy that largely determines where they are located.

While the majority of the city’s artworks are donated, the percent-for-art policy funds the creation of new pieces. That sees a small percentage of the costs of new public and private development going to new public artworks. Developers of private projects have the option of installing new works onsite, or paying a fee into the city’s public art fund. For new public development projects like libraries and water treatment plants, though, pieces paid for by the percent-for-art policy must be located on the premises.

Voice of San Diego reports that both of these mechanisms have contributed to unequal distribution and difficult access. Reporter Kinsee Morlan writes, “Neighborhoods with new public and private projects get the public art that comes with them. Neighborhoods historically overlooked by developers don’t get new projects or art.”

And the requirement that percent-for-art pieces funded by public projects be located on site has resulted in artworks that a typical city resident can’t view without an appointment. At least a dozen of the pieces in the city’s collection are located at water plants or pump stations, where access has been heavily restricted since 9/11. Individuals need to contact the city’s communications department and pass security measures in order to even set up an appointment.

“This is a really good argument for why cities should fund art in other ways,” said Barbara Goldstein, a public art consultant based in San Jose who used to run Seattle’s public art program. “They can’t just rely on their percent-for-art programs.”

Robin Brailsford, an artist commissioned to create a work for the Miramar Water Treatment Plant, agrees. She told Voice of San Diego that she thinks the requirements about onsite placement could be loosened. “These type of projects — water treatment plants — have incredibly large public art budgets. But other public projects, like Bird Park in North Park, or a skate park or something like that — those projects have a low overall budget and so the 2 percent that pays for art is very, very low,” she said. “I’m an artist, so I think all places are good for public art. But what I would do is change how public art is funded. Instead of it being based on a percentage of a project that then limits where the art can go, the money should be pooled and go toward funding art in the places that have the most public access.”

Larry Baza, one of San Diego’s 15 volunteer arts commissioners, said that the Commission for Arts and Culture is looking to use alternative funding sources like grants to spread art more equitably among San Diego neighborhoods, instead of changing the percent-for-art policy. “It was a tough row to hoe getting the percent-for-art policy on the books,” he said. “And from my experience working with governments, trying to change a policy like that is going to either get it off the books or get it decreased or redefined in ways you don’t want.”

He also said that the commission is looking into the best ways to spend the roughly $1 million raised by developers contributing to the public art fund instead of building works onsite.

Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: arts and culturepublic spacesan diego

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