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Public art: Build it or leave it?

"Wanderers" by artist Willie Robert Middlebrook is on display at Expo/Crenshaw Station. The Expo Line is set to open April 28, 2012.
Courtesy of Metro
"Wanderers" by artist Willie Robert Middlebrook is on display at Expo/Crenshaw Station. The Expo Line is set to open April 28, 2012.

Art is not just the preserve of private collectors or encased within the four walls of museums and art galleries.

Art is not just the preserve of private collectors or encased within the four walls of museums and art galleries. Art also belongs to the streets. In effort to bring art to the masses, new commercial and residential developments over 7,500 square feet or housing five units or more are mandated by local governments to spend at least one percent of project costs to public art commissions. In Santa Monica, a similar ordinance calls for developers to set aside two percent.

"It provides access to arts and cultural resources to residents and visitors of our communities," said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager for the City of Santa Monica. "Public art enhances the built environment. In many ways, it actually encourages our communities to be more walkable, to be more pedestrian-friendly. It's a well known fact that if there are interesting encounters along the way, people are willing to walk further to have that sense of discovery."

According to Cusick, the 2007 ordinance has not received that much criticism from developers.

"There wasn't a lot of building that went on in 2008 and 2009 anywhere in Southern California, but we have not gotten a lot of push back from developers. Many developers have chosen the onsite art option [of contributing two percent], when they have another option to contribute one percent into a cultural trust fund," she said.

Cusick explained that developers can also take a third route, choosing to provide theatrical space, performance space, or even office space for a nonprofit arts organization.
Supporters of public art say the benefits are manifold, including improved cultural tourism, creating a unique identity for a building and in some cases improving how safe an area is perceived. There is also evidence of financial benefits to installing public art. For example, with the installation of two 70-foot, painted murals at Wilshire Vermont Station in Los Angeles, the developers created significant publicity for their project: the Mayor of Los Angeles uses the site for press conferences and pictures of the murals have appeared in countless photo shoots.

But as art is a matter of taste, some commercial developers question whether thousands of dollars should be ploughed into improving the aesthetic beauty of a building through murals, sculptures and other artistic works. Bryan Starr, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of Southern California's Orange County chapter, said their concern isn't about the art itself.

"Our members appreciate local governments that see the value in unique design," he explained. "What we are opposed to is local governments mandating taxes on new developments, in particular housing developments, to pay for public art. Trust me – if a developer thinks a design element will add value or stimulate a financial return, they don't need to be compelled by the government to include it in their project."
Starr is concerned that different communities want different aesthetics, and community opposition affects development.

"If there's a particularly controversial piece of art, or a design element that maybe doesn't necessarily fit the culture of the community, yeah. That can definitely freeze the development project, and developers don't like to be stuck in the middle of those community arguments," he said.

He added that some developers are forward thinking about design. "If the market calls for something unique, or they're trying to create a walkable space, there are very unique designs, and architects sometimes get very creative. In fact, there are a lot of cities that don't want this, and sometimes developers are trying to encourage them to think outside the box. Individual market-based approach we support, not the government mandate," he said.

To Cusick, the mandate can be coupled with all other housing ordinances.

"This isn't a government mandate in the sense of just requiring art, but I think it's really a statement of value. It's about what is important to a community," she continued. "It's really no different than any other building standard. Essentially, this is a city saying, 'This is the type of city that we want, and this is how we expect you to build in our community.' In the same way that we require landscaping, wide sidewalks or public plazas, greener communities with permeable surfaces, many of these things we require in Santa Monica, we also require that you think about providing access to some type of cultural art or resource."

What are your views on public art? Is it a waste of money? If you pass public art on your way to work or school, does it make you 'feel' better? Where public art is installed, do you perceive the area in a more positive light? Should the public have more say in what art is commissioned for public spaces?


Jessica Cusick, Cultural Affairs Manager, City of Santa Monica; former (TBD) for the MTA

Mott Smith, Principal, Civic Enterprise Associates, a strategic planning and development company in the city of Los Angeles

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