An ordinance passed last year in Burlington, Vermont, directs city funds for public art only to work that is permanent and purchased from individual artists.
In December, 2021, Hyperallergic kindly invited me to re-draft the earlier ‘On the Percent for Public Art Ordinance’ commentary for an audience that is much wider than the City of Burlington. Hyperallergic is an online publication with hundreds of global contributors and over one million visitors monthly. In their words, Hyperallergic challenges the art world status quo, investigating the inner workings of art institutions and markets, shedding light on the movements and individuals fighting for greater inclusion and representation. It was an honor to work with talented editor Seph Rodney and to have the following version of the commentary published on February 7, 2022. Thanks also to photographer Luke Awtry for the beautiful images.
BURLINGTON, VT — I live in a very small New England city that has a reputation for being progressive. Here, public conversations about livable wages, non-citizen voting, and tenant rights are frequent. For a few decades it’s also been a garden of converse discoveries: A fertile learning environment providing lessons about how government action — particularly policies deciding how the arts are resourced — should come from a foundational value of inclusion. It often doesn’t.
The pandemic era has made it very clear that our society has flaws baked in; that the machinery of our democracy was built with bad math, and that people have suffered because of these imperfections. An earnest look at how a government views and treats the arts reveals opportunities to make adjustments toward inclusion and fairness. We’re in a time that has validated systemic changemaking; the next steps are on us.
My municipality — led by a combination of city councilors and an administration that includes a city arts office — enacted an ordinance last June that delivers 1% of the capital budget of any city development project to our municipal arts office. There, the ordinance dedicates those funds to be used to create public art within each project, or for those funds to be collected and used elsewhere for public art. The language is specific about the use of these funds: They’re for “work … intended to be permanent or longstanding, not temporary or transitory,” purchased from an individual artist, to be owned by the city and maintained by staff paid by the arts office from the funds. This ordinance might offer a positive first impression. It also represents an outmoded worldview.
This new arts funding appears during a period when arts leadership could have — like other leaders — been deeply contemplating the imperative of inclusion and applied empathy to arts funding strategies. Serving all arts, and all people, should be the baseline of a city’s policymakers and arts office. Striving to expand effectiveness through new, nuanced understandings, and committing to including the public in public projects, follow from that premise — especially when creating entirely new revenue streams to support the arts.
With these values in mind, I asked our arts office whether this ordinance was an expression of purposeful fair-mindedness. How does the new ordinance 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 art that changes often enough to eventually enrich everyone — and include artists who aren’t well-established? How does the ordinance support processes that engage the public in decisions about public art, inviting local artists or schoolchildren to participate?
The language of this ordinance did not address these questions, but rather fell back onto legacy art-funding practices that don’t responsibly, inclusively and equitably serve an arts community in a modern era. Yes, permanent, ongoing funding from capital projects and staffing could strengthen arts infrastructure broadly conceived. But there was no effort to leverage this new funding monopoly to achieve the greatest good. This ordinance was basic.
The director of our city arts office described this new capital-project-derived support as only one of multiple funding sources, thus facilitating “a positive outcome, not a narrow perspective.” And they describe contemporary public art as “frequently multi-disciplinary and does not preclude artists of any discipline from being included in a project’s conception and design.” Yet, they are among the authors of this new ordinance that now channels 100% of all arts funding from capital projects, by rule, into a permanent collection comprising art purchased from individual artists. The entire universe of the potential for service to the wider arts community is circumvented; the outcome is literally exclusive and determined by authors who are habituated to serving a dominant art form — the visual. The definition of public art that was shared in conversation didn’t inform the actual legislative work, providing us with a reminder of where to find the proof of an authentic commitment to fairness: in actions, not words.
Is ours the only city that systematically marginalizes, under-resources, and neglects non-visual art forms and the people who create them? I strongly doubt it. Likely, most of our cities could use a healthier outlook. In the meantime, those with clearer vision are proposing federal legislation that would fund temporary or permanent public artwork in categories as broad as two- and three-dimensional visual artworks, interactive or sound-based artworks, and performative artworks like concerts, readings, festivals, or displays of dance or theater. These many art forms are versions of coming together, of sharing, of communing amid interpretations of human experience. They all provide the enrichment and community-building that we so often declare is the fundamental value of the arts. Our aspiration for art — reflected in the investments we make in the capital that fosters art in our cities — should embrace our complexity.
Let’s be optimistic that if our congressional delegates can grasp the imperative of inclusion in public art when they propose arts funding of $300,000,000 in the Creative Economy Revitalization Act, our municipal leaders should be able to grasp this core value as well. Locally, these leaders should ensure any local arts fund — for capital public art projects or otherwise — meets this standard and normalizes it.