Public art should hold public appeal

Chicoans want to get what they pay for

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

A vague $180,000 “collaborative art project” lacking in any kind of descriptive detail received conditional approval from the Chico City Council at its 2008-10 budget confirmation session earlier this month. The occasion marked the first time the Arts Commission and Mary Gardner, the city arts coordinator, had asked the council to fund a blind pig in a poke.

The concept blows the entire two-year arts budget.

Most bizarre is the fact the council didn’t ask the commission spokesman or Gardner to explain why something they couldn’t describe or envision should be worth $180,000. The project calls for a western-states search for a famous visual artist, who would be under city contract, and a sub-contracted artist “from some other discipline” to work with unknown local emerging artists to produce the intangible result.

The skeptical council wanted to see specifics and some sort of design before spending any money. This welcome first oversight step marks a departure from past council practice of rubber stamping whatever art proposal(s) the commission and Gardner produced.

Equally important, this proposal offers an excellent example of why the city’s recent $30,000 professional public-opinion poll found that 70 percent of Chico residents dislike public art funded with public money. Common sense tells folks that big-ticket art items rammed down the throat of the public without recourse by the city’s art folks rarely prove attractive and, thus, produce little bang for the buck.

A few lavishly expensive examples: The abstract thing at the east end of Park Avenue (cost: $140,000) that’s supposed to represent a plow and agriculture to those entering Chico; the six concrete chess tables (cost: $68,000) in the new City Plaza; the abstract chrome soaring star (cost: $55,000) at the airport, and the City Hall dancing fish fountain (cost: $70,000) with fish tails that don’t move and a water veil that doesn’t work.

People want to see appealing murals and wall pictures. Indeed, the low-cost $5,000 trolley mural on the front restroom wall saves the stark concrete City Plaza. It’s so popular that the artist is producing another $5,000 mural on the back end.

Also, the now-defunct but very popular Chico Open Board Art project cost only $30,000 a year and involved public participation. Tragically, it’s no longer funded.

The City Council needs a new approach to public art. Decision making should go from the top down, not from the bottom up as at present. The guiding dictum to Gardner and the commission should be: no abstract act—just appealing, identifiable subjects presented early on and carrying a modest, justified price tag. Add public approval as a must.