The past two years have made it very clear that society has flaws baked-in; that the machinery of our democracy was built with bad math, and that people have suffered through history because of this. The bad math has created pockets of privilege — the kind that etches frailty into faith that government is fair-minded. A recent ordinance passed in Burlington is one of these reminders, ‘Percent for Public Art.’

The new Percent for Public Art ordinance in Burlington calls for one percent of city-funded capital project budgets to be used to create public art within each project, or for those funds to be collected and used elsewhere relating to public art. The language is specific about the use of these funds; they’re for permanent public artwork purchased from an individual artist, to be owned by the city and maintained by staff paid by Burlington City Arts from the funds. The language of the ordinance rings like a bell: The City of Burlington systemically marginalizes, under-resources, and neglects non-visual art forms and the people who create them.

This new arts resource appears during a period when arts leadership could — like so many others — have been deeply contemplating the imperative of inclusion and applied this insight and empathy to the strategies it embraces. Serving all arts, and all people, should be the baseline of a city’s policymakers and arts office. Striving to innovate, to expand effectiveness through new, nuanced understanding, and committing to including the public in public projects, follow from that. With this in mind, I asked the BCA Public Art Committee how the Percent for Public Art ordinance will serve youth, the blind, the deaf? How does it provide capital support to the performing arts? How does it meet goals of public enrichment when it purchases permanent art pieces, rather than builds infrastructure on which to curate temporary art that changes often enough to eventually affect everyone — and include artists who aren’t well-established? How does it support processes that engage the public in decisions about public art, inviting local artists or schoolchildren to participate? The language of ‘Percent for Public Art’ does not address these questions. It does make clear that it is not informed by those who would ask these questions. The BCA Public Art Committee is tasked with developing guidelines for implementing Percent for Public Art, but they can not be expected to color outside its lines. Those lines must be improved.

Burlington has been tormented by the City’s willful neglect of arts-related infrastructure, with deferred maintenance leading to the largest city-owned stage and historic teen-led cultural venue literally crumbling into a condemned state at Memorial Auditorium. For decades the City has chosen to not apply the lens of fairness in review of its arts mission. Mayor Weinberger declined these conversations and deferred decisions about foundational values and policies to a single appointee and a group of self-elected advisors who have avoided the choice to elevate all arts equally within BCA activities and its org chart, and to live up to its charter. This pattern is imprinted in the new ordinance, which creates a fresh stream of revenue that will not, as it is written, fairly support the arts and the people of Burlington. The ordinance defines the public art it funds as “a work of visual art or an artistically designed feature created by an individual…” In 2021, we find the City certifying an ordinance that also certifies its systematic marginalization of the performing arts and other non-visual art forms.

To put a bow on it: A small Public Art Committee — members of a self-electing advisory group — have been freshly authorized to make public art decisions without a public process; a new stream of city funding has been instituted that will permanently benefit a small number of visual artists, apparently omitting other art forms and public art processes from funding; and there’s a new stream of financial support for staffing of visual arts resources at the exclusion of staffing who might develop and administer capital improvements for the performing arts or other art forms. This is Burlington’s status quo, and a goal that “was a project 20 years in the making.”

Changemakers — those who’ve sought positions of leadership for themselves, believing their choices will make our small municipality more just — can revisit Percent for Public Art with unity. An amendment could mandate that it generate capital investment — for structures within new projects or funds for renovations — that equally serve the visual and performing arts, because fairness in government can be a goal of Democrats, Progressives, Republicans and independents alike. There are limitless opportunities for public capital investment in the performing arts, from the stages of Memorial Auditorium to the bandshell at Battery Park, or new ‘tiny’ outdoor infrastructure that orients public benches toward a place for a performer to stand with dignity for a small audience. Public bulletin boards are low-cost outlets for all types of arts. The potential is as infinite as the vision of Burlington’s creatives.

City leaders could prioritize their responsibility to restore the arts infrastructure lost due to the inattention of those who occupied their chairs in the past. Entirely new spaces have been developed in the past decade to serve the visual arts, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax-funded investment by the City. This should pair with an equivalent investment in infrastructure for the performing arts and a stream of capital funds for it. How democratic are the policymakers? How inclusive and committed to public processes are they? An honest answer to these fair questions — and some honest self-reflection by the administration and city councilors — would benefit everyone, and the arts.

Download the Percent for Public Art ordinance.

VTDigger published this commentary on August 26, 2021.

Update September 28, 2021: The Creative Economy Revitalization Act under consideration in Congress (supported by Rep. Welch) is recognizing the value of all kinds of public, shared art and the role of art in the recovery of our social strength and economy. Our national leadership is valuing music, poetry, literature, narratives, films, plays, and visual art while Burlington’s approach to and definition of public art, made clear in the Percent for Public Art ordinance, remains a shallow and crippling extension of decades of narrow-minded arts policy.

Image: ‘Broken Eggs’ by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1756). In the public domain courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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