Arts News: Johnson County Scales Back Funding for Public Art

“Converge,” by Steve Richardson, a sculpture commissioned under the Johnson County Public Art Program, was installed at the Overland Park Convention Center in 2004.

With large public construction projects in the pipeline, the Johnson County Commission on Nov. 2 voted to cut funding for public art designed to enhance such projects.

The commission’s action reduces the public art funding cap for a new county courthouse from $1 million to $500,000, and caps all funding for future public art projects at $500,000.

The commission also voted to eliminate a public art allocation for a new medical examiner’s facility, and eliminated a public art trust fund. The trust fund will be replaced by a gift fund geared entirely toward private contributions, grant receipts or uncommitted capital project funds.

Groundbreaking for the new $182 million courthouse is scheduled for the summer of 2018, with completion expected in 2020. Construction of the new $19 million medical examiner’s office also is expected to begin in 2018.

Established in 2006, Johnson County’s public art program allocates 1 percent of capital project costs for public art on selected major capital projects. The maximum allocation formerly was $1 million.

“The county still supports art,” said Commission Chairman Ed Eilert. “The $1 million level had never been reached in any public facility before the new courthouse. It was a collective decision that it would be more appropriate to lower that $1 million to $500,000, not only for the courthouse, but for any other facility.”

Kansas Rep. Jerry Stogsdill of Prairie Village said he was disappointed by the commission’s actions.

“Support of the arts is not only a quality of life issue in Kansas, it’s an economic development issue,” Stogsdill said. “The arts industry in our state is a large industry.”

Stogsdill added that lack of support for the arts in Kansas “has damaged our image as a progressive state around the country, and I think it has discouraged some companies from looking to locate in Kansas.”

Christopher Leitch, an artist and member of the Johnson County Public Art Commission, said he was grateful for the county’s continued support for public art but disappointed by the reduction.

“The Public Art Commission has worked diligently to bring before the County Commission and the citizens of Johnson County works of significant quality and significant impact by local, regional and national artists,” Leitch said. “This improves the quality of the arts landscape and the quality of the aesthetic life of our county significantly.”

Leitch said he believes that 5 or 10 percent of all public funds should be spent on works of art and artistic experiences. “That’s not realistic, but that’s the depth of my passion and my commitment to the arts in our county. I’m going to continue to advocate for them to support the arts in any way that they can.”

Larry Meeker, chair of the Johnson County Public Art Commission, said art “elevates” a building, integrates it into a community and underscores its purpose.

“We could build buildings in the county out of cinderblock and make them very cheap,” Meeker said. “But I think government at every level tries to set the standards by which we want to view ourselves, and view their services.”

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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