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Re-fighting the same fights 

When art and politics mix

Public art is vital to a city's image. My dominant memory of a brief trip to Basel, Switzerland, is taking a tram from the station and getting off near a colossal silhouette of a man hammering an invisible object in the street. The statue's black steel arm moved slowly and irresistibly, never ceasing its eternal rhythm. It spoke to me of the city's industrious history; the giant size of the sculpture (created by American artist Jonathan Borofsky) summed up centuries of individual skill and craft.

Trying to get public art of an equivalent standard constructed in Charlotte isn't easy. The latest controversy was ignited by Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who complained publicly about the proposed artworks for the light rail line and the arena and reportedly wants politicians to choose Charlotte's art instead of arts professionals.

Let me issue a disclaimer straight away: I co-chair the Art-in-Transit Advisory Committee appointed by the Charlotte Area Transit Authority to oversee the art program, from artists' selection to the completion of projects. Mayor McCrory was quoted as worrying that the art was going to be chosen by people "running around in a cultural fog," but I can put his mind at ease on this score. My fellow art-in-transit committee members bring extensive financial, administrative and curatorial expertise to the process from their experience in banking, community arts groups, and independent consultancies, including specialist matters of art conservation and maintenance.

Opinions on art will always vary, and it's the easiest thing in the world for someone, when confronted by a piece of art that's unfamiliar, to condemn the work as rubbish, or something kids could do better. History provides a warning about such hasty reactions. Parisians in the 1860s ridiculed new art in their galleries, but nowadays, this "rubbish" -- work by painters we call the Impressionists -- is worth millions of dollars and hangs in all the best American museums. How silly those strident, opinionated critiques sound today!

To ensure the relevance of the art to the neighborhoods served by the rail line, the art-in-transit program introduced artists, some local, some nationally and internationally recognized, to the communities around the transit stations. There were good dialogues, like the ones about the Scaleybark station. Here local folks affirmed they wanted the old QP cinema tower to be kept and dressed up in new finery as a local landmark. This is exactly what the artist, R.M. Fischer from New York, proposes to do. Yet, apparently, some politicians don't like this proposal. We can't have it both ways. If we canvas community opinion we shouldn't override it just because it doesn't suit our personal tastes of the moment. That's poor policy and bad politics.

A small number of Charlotte artists have also been vocal during the process, demanding that local artists be chosen for every potential art commission. While understanding this point of view, it's like suggesting that the Panthers recruit their squad only from Charlotte residents. They'd get some good players, but miss out on an awful lot of talent. However, our committee still gives this point serious consideration, and nearly a third of the artists proposing work along the rail line live and work in the Carolinas, while the remainder include artists from England, Argentina, and other parts of America. It's a good mix.

Among the issues swirling around the art, the most contentious may be cost. The art is funded by a pool of money equivalent to one percent of the construction cost, in the case of the light rail line, $2.4 million, and $1.4 million for the arena. This is the national norm across the USA, and the public art programs in this nation are admired around the world. It's one of the few things about American culture that inspires admiration rather than fear in foreigners.

When individual pieces of art cost $100,000, voices are raised in protest. But a major artwork can take months to complete, and that $100,000 has to pay for design, materials, fabrication and installation. Why are we so mean about artists earning a living wage? The artist will be lucky if he or she realizes a third of the amount as "salary" before taxes. Would we expect good quality legal or medical advice on the cheap? Even if we abandoned the 1 percent for art, the city wouldn't save money. It's not added on; it's part of the construction budget and the dollars would simply get absorbed elsewhere to pay for some contingency or other.

It's depressing to fight these same battles for artistic excellence over and over again. One hundred years ago America sought to embellish its cities with art during the "City Beautiful" movement. Today, we begrudge beauty and seek to define it politically. But if politicians want to control the city's art, it's only fair they let artists run the city government.

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