At a time of severe budget crunches in Mesa, the city arts board is imploring the City Council to preserve the public arts program before it fades from memory. In the past couple years, the program and Cultural Community Aid grants have been reduced to zero.
A letter from the Museum and Cultural Advisory Board states concern that after several years of underfunding, a future move to return the programs to normal levels would be considered a new proposal.
Board chairman Peter Cook touted the benefits of public art.
“It brings people downtown, gives them a sense of involvement and something to look at other than the nuts and bolts,” he said.
The board is suggesting the city fund both the public art and community grants each year with at least $10,000.
“Our goal is that the city would restore these two items, as soon as funding permits, to their previous levels,” the letter states.
But the arts in Mesa have faced strong opposition from officials.
The public art fund was first slashed in 2004 by about $200,000. At the time, incoming Councilman Tom Rawles expressed strong sentiment against public funding of art, and his feelings haven’t changed much since.
“I just don’t believe in the government taking money from everybody to promote something few people find of value and enjoy,” he said.
Rawles said he would support a private group voluntarily raising funds and that he loves art.
“But I would hope no matter how healthy the budget is, we shouldn’t spend money on public art,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s $200,000 or $10.”
The Mesa public art program was created in 1997 out of concern “about the quality of life and appearance of the city,” the establishing resolution states.
The resolution says art describes the city’s heritage and identity through sculptures, murals, park amenities, streetscapes and projects that educate the public.
The resolution also says the city manager should include in the budget a line item for public art equaling 1 percent of the capital improvement fund for parks, recreation and cultural facilities.
There is, however, a provision that allows the council to appropriate more or less money for public art.
Since 1999, the city has completed at least 20 public art projects, many of them highly stylized bus shelters. Several pieces of public art also were integrated into the Mesa Arts Center.
The pieces ranged in cost from $2,000 for a temporary project to $350,000 for a project woven into the Mesa Arts Center.
The public art program was staffed full time for about five years and a part-time replacement for a while, but no one has led the program since last year, said Mesa arts administrator Rob Shultz.
“It’s been fairly effective in the past,” Shultz said. “Now it’s dried up.”
Mesa’s program lags behind other East Valley cities: Tempe public art has a budget of more than $400,000; Chandler’s is at $225,000.
Usually, public art programs are supported by a mix of public and private funding. Some, such as Tempe’s and Scottsdale’s, have implemented an Art in Private Development ordinance that requires builders to dedicate a percentage of construction costs to art.
Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said she is not opposed to public art, but called it a “luxury we couldn’t afford.”
But she said she would have concerns about passing a private development ordinance.
“Then we’re saying we can’t afford it but you should afford it,” she said. “Encouraging it is a great idea but there’s a difference between encouraging and mandating.”
The advisory board’s Cook said he has seen what public art can do in his travels to London, Rome and Athens.
“Does Mesa want to paint itself as another Detroit?” he asked.
Mesa public art projects
• Main Street bus shelters, $75,000*
• “Mesa Historical Sites” prints, $8,200
• Dilophosaurus at Arizona Museum of Natural History, $100,000
• Screenprint workshop at Mesa Arts Center, $8,600
• “Simply Citrus! Courtyard” at Dobson Branch Library, $7,000
• “Fragmented Landscape” at Mesa Arts Center, $350,000
• “Light Storm” at MAC, $100,000
• Fire Station #201 sculptures, $40,000
• Mesa Community College bus shelter, $34,000*
• Other bus shelters $34,000 per shelter*
• Canal Festival Chalk Mural, $3,500
• Monoprint workshop, $2,000
• Red Mountain branch library, $10,000
• Bus shelter, $9,999*
• Temporary project, MAC $2,500
• Temporary project MAC, $2,500
• Bus shelter, Banner Baywood $34,000*
• Temporary project, $2,000
*All bus shelters were partially paid for with transportation funds