City seeking to craft artful image

Works would be funded via public building plans

March 03, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

Forget the controversial Male/Female (It?) sculpture looming over Penn Station.

Think of more embraceable creations: The stainless steel tubes jutting into the sky in front of the Maryland Science Center. The buoyant red sculpture gracing Pratt Street in the Inner Harbor. Or how about those concrete arcs fronting the Baltimore Visitor Center, meant to convey the "cyclical nature of human interaction"?

Public art - where profundity and vagueness seemingly co-exist - sprouts in forms vast and varied in pockets across the city.

Now, city officials hope to add to the conspicuous and sometimes not-so-conspicuous structures with a proposal that would require all publicly funded city construction projects to set aside 1 percent of costs for public art, a concept that is widely used around the country and that thrived in Baltimore decades ago.

The proposal, introduced by Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration this week, expands on the current law, which city officials say dates to 1964 and was generously used by William Donald Schaefer when he was mayor.

But the existing law is more of an option than a mandate, said William Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. The new proposal would funnel 1 percent of the cost of any parking garage, bridge or street into a fund, which could be used flexibly - for new public art projects or the maintenance of existing ones, he said.

City officials expect little opposition to the proposal, but some say they would like to strengthen it by including private developers who receive public subsidies, and by ensuring that schools - whose construction is largely funded by the state - are included.

"No one's criticized the idea yet," said Gilmore. "I think that for generations public art has been an integral part of our society."

Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, questioned the use of taxpayer money for new spending.

"Really, what this amounts to is new funding and new spending," said Summers. "At this point in time, is this really a pressing priority? I'd have to say no.

"I'd venture to say that the Baltimore taxpayer would agree. They need to be aware that this is a new spending item."

Across the country, there are at least 287 public government programs for public art, according to a 2003 study conducted by Americans for the Arts, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

Beginning with Philadelphia's in 1959, programs have surfaced in cities, counties and states, said Liesel Fenner, public arts manager of the organization. Fenner did not know how many of the programs were mandatory, as opposed to optional ones like the program now in place in Baltimore.

While dedicating 1 percent to public art works is the norm, some areas, such as Santa Monica in California and Broward County in Florida, require 2 percent, said Fenner. Some include private developers. But such ordinances have led to sticky situations.

In Philadelphia, for example, a developer receiving an array of public subsidies in 2001 raised a stink about including public art in his 16-story apartment building. He eventually dropped his opposition.

"It's certainly challenging," said Fenner, about including private developers in the requirement. "But any city that thinks about strong design within the entire city, I think, is helping create a better place and a better community."

The Baltimore proposal requires that projects be publicly bid and exceed $100,000 in eligible costs.

A nine-member Public Art Commission would select the artists and artwork, and allocate funds.

If a project is constructed through a combination of federal, state and city funds, the portion coming from the city would be eligible, and the remainder of funds would be evaluated for potential use.

The federal General Services Administration has a public art program. In 2005, the state's General Assembly passed legislation to start an optional program, which has not been funded.

City officials could not say how much money the program would generate for spending on public art - an amount that would obviously vary depending on the amount of construction.

With the case of the $301 million publicly funded Hilton convention center hotel, 1 percent would amount to a whopping $3 million.

Currently, there are two projects under way with money earmarked for public art. The Roland Park Library renovation includes a $26,900 glass wall sculpture, and the construction of a new library in Highlandtown includes a $65,000 illuminating pod sculpture, said Gilmore.

Artists and art advocates hailed the proposal as one that would inject new life into the artist community and city landscape alike.

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