Great sewer debate trickles down to the arts

It is an arts community's worst nightmare: millions of dollars in money earmarked for public art flushed down the toilet. The money is only theoretical, but it's still managing to keep local artists awake at night.

Implemented in 1977, the City of Atlanta's Percent-For-Art program was supposed to ensure that 1 percent (later amended to 1.5 percent) of all municipal capital construction project budgets would go toward public art. But Percent-For-Art money was rarely collected and was instead lost in a bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle. Like leash laws or ordinances against public kissing, it was on the books but rarely enforced.

Recognizing a good idea lying fallow, an amended Public Art Master Plan was drafted in 2001, outlining ways to capture that Percent-For-Art money. Following that amendment, the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, which administers the Percent-For-Art program, did occasionally secure the evanescent funds. In fact, the bureau recently awarded a $250,000 commission to Seattle artist Ann Gardner for her installation "Ring of Water" in the rotunda of the newly constructed City Court of Atlanta at 150 Garnett St., which was paid for with Percent-For-Art funds.

But it's the scale of one capital construction project that has captured the imagination of subscribers to Atlanta's ARTNEWS list serve, a cyber-community linking artists, curators, critics, arts administrators and others. Few topics in the ARTNEWS conversation pit have generated the sustained passion as the Percent-For- Art program.

It's the city's $3 billion sewer remediation project that is bringing the long-neglected Percent-For-Art issue to the fore. Public art activists are furiously debating how to capture 1.5 percent of the sewer project money.

Eddie Granderson, public art program manager for the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, says the arts community shouldn't get its hopes up where the sewer project is concerned. Public art money generally has to be captured very early in any capital construction project, and the sewer remediation project is already well under way.

So since a hunk of the sewage pie is unlikely, the only thing the arts community will probably gain is a lesson about the need for organized activism. For decades the Bureau of Cultural Affairs has been unwilling or unable to stake its 1.5 percent claim. The responsibility then falls to artists to pressure the city of Atlanta to live up to its own legislated benevolence. Rather than airing their grievances to each other in forums such as the insular ARTNEWS list serve, interested parties need a plan of action to cut through the bureaucratic overgrowth.

There is a range of opinion about how to make sure the Percent-For-Art program and the Public Art Master Plan are followed. Changes to the pre-bond process are crucial, says Granderson, since bond agencies have been able to override ordinances like the Percent-For-Art program in the past. Public art advocates agree that line items need to be put onto contracts before the biding and bonding stage to ensure that money is captured.

The Public Art Master Plan also calls for the formation of an advisory committee and a task force to help move the creaky wheels of bureaucracy's mule-drawn cart along.

But one of the best ideas put forth has been to encourage artists to play the government game on its own terms. Artist Gregor Turk, community liaison for the nonprofit public art advocacy group the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition, and others have suggested that hiring a lobbyist would ensure that it was someone's job to enforce the Percent-For-Art program. Now someone just has to find the money to pay for it.

The Metropolitan Public Art Coalition will host a public forum Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for artists and activists to develop a plan for enforcing the Percent-For-Art program. (Contact for details.)

Look more

When was the last time you saw a short indie film with a revolutionary message? Like a daisy in a gun barrel, Frank Lopez's Join the Resistance, Fall in Love is a socially conscious love story countering the eternal ugliness of hate with a Beatlesque "all we need is love" vibe. Catch this 2003 Bureau of Cultural Affairs Emerging Artist Award recipient's work when the film screens at the WellFair video night at MJQ Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. and at PushPush's Valentine's Day "Love Fest" of off-kilter short love stories, also at 8 p.m.


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