Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: Let’s Enhance Our Public Art Program

Like them or loathe them, it doesn’t much matter anymore. R.M. Fischer’s “Sky Stations,” soaring above Bartle Hall Convention Center after more than 20 years in place, are an inextricable part of Kansas City’s identity — as much so as the iconic Oldenburg “Shuttlecocks” (1994) on the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art lawn or “The Scout” (1910), by Cyrus E. Dallin, overlooking downtown.

Like your family’s kitchen table where so many childhood memories are set — impressions that helped make you who you are — public art is a major part of our great city’s set. It transforms public spaces to public places where life happens — day in and day out.

Ours is a vibrant city for its public art funded through both private and public sources. But it is the public art program, first adopted in 1970 and codified in 1986 by the KCMO council with tenacious leadership by Katheryn Shields, that set up a systematic acquisition program resulting in the “Sky Stations” and 43 other works to date. (A catalog is available at kcmo.gov/general services.)

The program requires that 1 percent of all new city construction project budgets be set aside for the purchase of original art, which is usually tied to the building itself. This “One Percent for Art” program has brought us world-class works positioned from the airport to the Stockyards to the Central Patrol Division. The selection process is adjudicated by the Municipal Art Commission, with equal opportunity granted to local and out-of-town artists.

Today over 350 cities have similar percent for public arts programs, and it’s safe to say that every single work of art in these collections has its detractors. There will always be someone for whom my lovable sky stations represent a waste of money for “space junk on Soviet architecture!” One person’s humor may be offensive to another. And as the City of Overland Park learned recently, a nude statue to one may be pornography to another.

We don’t go to museums expecting to like each work of art, which is how public art should be approached. Great 21st-century cities are sort of like museums of public arts.

Beyond the percent for arts program, Kansas City’s responsibility to local arts has been confusing at times: Should the city’s role be to support our existing arts community, or to use the successes of that community to sell the city through tourism and jobs?  The answer was set forth in the comprehensive FOCUS plan written in 1998, updated in 2004, and still in effect, which states the city’s role is “to recognize culture as commerce.”

Our incredible arts institutions represent city assets for attracting new business and tourism from which tax revenues are derived, placing arts clearly in the income section of the balance sheet.

However, to some extent, the city must support its assets, so in 2012, Mayor Sylvester James appointed a Design and Review Commission to reexamine the city’s role in supporting arts and culture. With input from over 3,000 people, the 72-page report, “KCMO Arts Convergence” — more sales piece than guide book — describes the city’s responsibility as making art and arts education more accessible, especially on a neighborhood basis.

The report recommended creation of an Office of Culture and Creative Service (OCCS), which happened in 2014. OCCS Director, Megan Crigger, was clear with me that the overall goal of her office is marketing and income generation by leveraging the successes of Kansas City arts organizations and artists.

Nine of the 10 goals and strategies set forth for the OCCS address how the office can support existing resources and programs. It’s my hope to see the goal to “Enhance the public arts program” pursued with great vigor. With its long track record of success, why not increase the set-aside tax to 2 percent as some cities have done, or why not require set-asides on more types of construction?

It’s clear to me that this mayor and council are high on the arts as an economic engine. What better way to show it than to once again get ahead of the pack and grow our public arts program? Chicago has more than 700 percent-for-art installations, Denver and Dallas more than 350 and Atlanta, 226, while we sit at 44. There are plenty of spaces waiting to become lovely places for living. There’s plenty of room in the museum that is our city.

Illustration by Jason Needham

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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