Somewhat ironically Invoking the famous Mao (mis)quote – “let a thousand flowers bloom” – John Egers suggests in a recent opinion piece for Sign On San Diego that the reigns of public art be released by the government and handed over to the public. All public funding for projects should be cut. He thinks that “maybe we need a revolution in public art.”
He goes on to say that a veritable revolution is already underway: “starting with, yes, grafitti.” I am certainly no public art historian but I believe that the graffiti revolution has come, and though it is not completely gone, is not longer in an avant-garde position. Egers gives evidence of this: For one, he notes the (in)famous British grafitti artist Bansky, who began work in the early 1980’s and secondly, a newly formed New York City cooperative of former graffiti artists, now in their 30’s, who are going back to the spots of historic graffiti art and reinventing them. The name of the initiative is “Subway Art History.”
But all of this aside, maybe Egers does have something of a point. Funding across the country is tight. Many city and county budgets are in crisis. Art certainly isn’t as important as reliable infrastructure (which also is in the midst of a national crisis) but it’s not dispensable either, at least if it’s done right.
The mayor of San Diego wants to cut funding for public art while dealing with a budget crisis. In Seattle a recent vote supported the continued funding of public art projects along transit lines. Elsewhere in Washington, Kitsap County to be exact, officials are looking into the legality of transferring current percent-for-art balances to fund other infrastructure projects.
One of the biggest reasons that public art is treated as dispensable is because a large portion of the public believes it to be unnecessary. This mentality should be a red flag to local governments. If the public thinks art is unnecessary, then it is not connecting to the place or the people and it has missed the point, thus becoming pointless, and governments should not be spending pointless dollars, especially not now. For instance, there are places like Chico, California where public art initiatives seem to have become an inside job, or others like Pasadena where Public Art Master Plans are novel and community input for public art has only recently been sought.
But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the public funding umbilical cord should be cut. Public art still needs consistent nurturing — though there is no reason why, in many cases, that support cannot or should not be reformed to reflect more community involvement and neighborhood-specific initiatives. Maybe this is the revolution we need in public art.