A call for clarity

City’s public-art program is confusing and opaque

CN&R staff writer Christine G.K. LaPado’s July 22 Newslines story about the confusion in the city of Chico’s public-art program is a call for clarity.

What LaPado pointed out is that communication between the city’s arts commissioners and city officials, especially Arts Projects Coordinator Mary Gardner, is poor; that commissioners are unsure of their proper role; that many of the city’s public-art projects are being done without their concurrence, or even their knowledge; and that arts funding is so opaque that it’s almost impossible to decipher.

What’s happened is that a division has developed between two kinds of city art projects, those that are specific stand-alone creations, such as “Our Hands” at City Hall, and those that are esthetic add-ons to public-works projects, such as the artistically designed bridge railings that are part of the Manzanita Avenue Corridor Reconstruction Project.

The Arts Commission is completely involved in the former, selecting the artworks and artists, but has had little or nothing to do with the latter. For better or worse, the artists involved in capital projects are selected by the city’s Engineering Department.

This is an efficient system, and it would be unfortunate if, by getting the Arts Commission involved, that efficiency was lost. Gardner and her supervisor, Assistant City Manager John Rucker, both told LaPado they are trying to get the commission more involved. We hope they succeed.

Just as important is clarifying the funding for capital-improvement art projects. LaPado tried to figure it out but hit a wall, and even Rucker and Gardner had difficulty helping her. The city needs more financial transparency and accountability in this area.

City Hall proudly touts the results of its public-art program, but it hasn’t done enough to ensure that it runs smoothly and with full transparency. Public art is always controversial—many people think the money would be better spent elsewhere—and a failure of process could turn taxpayers against it. That would be unfortunate.