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McCrory Wields Art Axe 

Mayor says Tober cut transit art on request

Last fall, indignant arts leaders said Mayor Pat McCrory wasn't qualified to critique the public art they picked for the light rail line. It now appears it was arts leaders who weren't qualified to play politics at McCrory's level. Until recently, it seemed the art community had won its battle with the mayor over whether modern art projects McCrory says you'd "have to smoke a joint to understand" would be installed at the transit stations. No one took much notice six months ago when almost a third of the projects in the light rail line public art budget disappeared.

Now that the statute of limitations appears to have passed, McCrory is proclaiming victory in the arts war. He says that after a closed-door meeting he had with transit chief Ron Tober, the projects were slashed.

"No one even noticed," he jauntily told us.

Tober and McCrory originally got together to discuss how to trim the budget for the light rail line after rising steel costs and other problems caused the projected cost to balloon. At the time, McCrory says, the city was in danger of losing its full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

"It just so happened we were 30 percent over budget and I was chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Commission," said McCrory.

McCrory said that after listening to Tober list cuts to the line's infrastructure, he suggested that Tober ought to make cuts to the art program too.

"I said why not cut this, this, this and this," said McCrory. "I'm just trying to use the small bully pulpit that I have being in the minority. I think we did the right thing."

McCrory took a lot of heat earlier this year for criticizing public art projects for the transit line and the arena. Art supporters said he should butt out, but McCrory responded that if the public doesn't like it, he'll take the heat.

"If a third grader can do it, maybe we shouldn't be paying for it," said McCrory. "I liked some of it, but some of it was just pure crap."

McCrory says he's not the only one who dislikes some of the more abstract public art Charlotte is investing in.

"Why does the business elite, which many people are in this community, go along with this?" McCrory asked. "Are they shamed into saying they like it? I ask them off the record if they like it, and they hate it."

In response to questions from Creative Loafing, Jean Leier, a spokesperson for the Charlotte Area Transit System, said CATS wouldn't remove any art based on aesthetic likes or dislikes.

"That would be censorship," she said. "This was a cost-cutting decision made at the request of the CEO, in keeping with program guidelines."

Leier said Tober asked the co-chairs of the advisory committee that originally picked the art and CATS' public art program manager to discuss the best way to reduce the budget by 20 percent. Tober's art advisors agreed to remove "free-standing art," or art that isn't a part of the station's infrastructure, she said.

Perhaps it's mere coincidence that the art projects Tober and his art advisors cut are the same ones McCrory has been railing against. Since September, McCrory has said he prefers art that is part of the infrastructure — decorative benches, fountains or station walls — to abstract or freestanding art.

Among the five projects that were cut were those McCrory has repeatedly criticized in interviews with the media:

¨ The $157,000 QP Tower by R.M. Fischer that would have gone in the Scaleybark light rail station, which would bear a refurbished lighted sign from the old Queen Park Multi-Cinema, was probably McCrory's least favorite project.

"It looks like a cell tower," McCrory said.

¨ Rosario Marquardt and Roberto Behar's $100,000 "Outdoor Waiting Room" piece that was to be part of the Archdale station. The piece, which McCrory describes as a "bench with a mirror on it," was supposed to resemble an outdoor living room.

¨ Nitin Jayaswal's Arrowood Station "Planter-Place Marker," which resembles two back-to-back letter "Ks" and costs $35,000.

A total of $557,000 was cut from the $2.5 million art budget. Leier said that one of the five projects that was eliminated was cut because the elevator tower in the South Boulevard Light Rail Facility it was supposed to adorn was cut.

When McCrory was asked for specifics on how many of the projects he had asked Tober to cut were actually axed, he wouldn't answer the question directly.

"I think he made a good management decision," McCrory said, grinning.

Other City Council members didn't think so.

"How many other deals have Ron (Tober) and the mayor cut that we don't know about?" said Democrat James Mitchell. "I can't believe that Tober listened to him. That is even more scary."

Mitchell says CATS should have brought all the projects back before the council in a presentation before making a decision to cut anything. He says he plans to ask the city manager, to whom Tober reports, to look into why the projects were cut. Democrat Nancy Carter also said council members should be involved in decisions about art.

Other council members weren't as disturbed by the possibility that McCrory pulled a fast one on the arts community.

"It came about with those guys trying to bring the budget back in line and I told Ron (Tober) everything was on the table that didn't deal with the functionality of the system," said Pat Mumford. "If it was art for art's sake, then it should be cut."

Democrat Patsy Kinsey said the situation wasn't a burning issue for her. She said she's more concerned that the city is spending $56,000 on artwork for the city's northwest maintenance facility, which is located on a dead end road in the middle of nowhere where the public won't be able to see it.

McCrory says he wants to make it clear that he supports public art.

"You don't just want a sterile city and you ought to put reasonably priced public art in, " McCrory said. "But we are getting into this eclectic modern age art, which I think a hundred or two hundred years from now or five minutes from now people will be laughing at. It's kind of like 1970s bellbottoms. It doesn't age very well."

Tara.servatius@cln.com

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