Fort Worth public art program under pressure as bond program approaches

Posted Monday, Jul. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Council member views The Star-Telegram polled Fort Worth City Council members for their views on the 2 percent piece of next year’s bond program that would go to public art projects connected to infrastructure in the package. Sal Espino, District 2 “All great cities have public art programs that speak to the heart and soul of the community. I think there’s a lot of support for it across the city.” Gyna Bivens, District 5 • On public art: “I think reviewing the funding process is most appropriate and beneficial to me as a new member of this council [and] beneficial to the city. All people need to weigh in.” • What she’s hearing in the district: “Where I’m from, which is Stop Six, there are needs that are more pressing that people will tell you.” Dennis Shingleton, District 7 “Great cities have great public art. Now, do we need to rethink this a bit? I think we do. If we can take a percentage of the 2 percent or delay it for a couple of years to ensure we reach our highest priorities, I think we need to do that.” Joel Burns, District 9 “To date, I have consistently heard from my constituents that they want to keep it as is. I remain in support of it also, but the point of this process is to hear from constituents [and] for us to listen to them.”

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For 10 days, empty water bottles piled up inside a steamy little makeshift hut in front of Evans Avenue’s Fire Station No. 5.

Inside the hut, San Antonio artist Oscar Alvarado and his crew sweated it out, installing a big tile mosaic depicting more than 100 years of southeast Fort Worth firefighting — the neighborhood’s first three stations dating to 1890, firefighters in period uniform, images of historic homes, a time continuum illustrated by a continuous hose.

Outside, debate over the level of continued public funding for acquisitions to Fort Worth’s public art collection was almost as hot. Alvarado’s Service Through the Centuries is the latest to join the collection .

“We had this debate [in San Antonio] when we built the Riverwalk,” he said. “Public art has its role in how cities are felt and made livable. It gives you a sense of place. If everything was the cheapest we could get away with, then we would have these vanilla cities.”

Alvarado won’t get any disagreement around Fort Worth in concept, but the debate’s over priority as the city moves toward putting a $292 million road-and-street-dominated bond program before voters in May 2014. A 2001 City Council ordinance requires 2 percent of capital programs — $5.84 million of the 2014 package — go to public art projects connected to infrastructure in the package.

The allocation — a total $8.4 million from the city’s 2004 and 2008 bond packages — is under increasing pressure for next year’s bond program, with the city trying to squeeze in as many projects as possible from a $2 billion infrastructure-jammed wish list. The council views the 2014 package as maxing out its debt capacity for five years.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, looking to fully fund the new Chisholm Trail Park in his southwest District 6, has proposed eliminating the public art money and moving the cash to transportation and parks.

Last week, Jordan, who began questioning the public art piece last summer and has modified his position several times, broadened his latest proposal.

The city should “scrub down” several pools of money in the staff’s recommendations for the bond package that contain $28 million for matching grants, economic incentive deals, and streetscape improvements around planned commuter rail stations and the city’s 16 urban villages, Jordan said.

Council members could pool the savings with the public art money, divide it, and let them pick projects in their districts they want included in the bond package, said Jordan, who would double the $2 million now slated for the Chisholm park in the bond package.

“If a council member’s priorities are public art, then we put it on the ballot,” he said.

Divergent views

Interviews with Mayor Betsy Price and the eight council members reflected divergent views on the public art piece. They said citizens need to say what they want in the bond program during a five-month series of city-hosted community road shows that end in November. The city’s also polling residents on what they want to see in the bond program through a new online tool.

The next public meeting is 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday at Meadowbrook United Methodist Church, 3900 Meadowbrook Drive. The council is scheduled to vote in December on the final package.

“I’m a big proponent of public art,” said Price, interviewed after the city recently unveiled a triptych by Austin artist Tommy Fitzpatrick atop the Fort Worth Police Crime Lab on East Lancaster Avenue.

“I don’t think for quality of life we need to eliminate it outright,” Price said. “I think it brings a different level to the city of Fort Worth.”

But Price said, “It’s up to the voters.”

There appears to be potential among council members for compromise.

Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents southeast District 8 and is looking to fully fund an East Lancaster library in the bond program, said she’s against eliminating the 2 percent.

“It brings a lot of people together who never would have known each other, and a lot of times, it’s a steppingstone toward revitalization,” Gray said.

She, like others at the Crime Lab art unveiling, was also looking forward to the impending completion of Alvarado’s mosaic and a sculptural street clock that’s coming to East Lancaster near a T bus transfer station.

Asked if she could support a reduction of the 2 percent, Gray indicated she was open.

“Will it go away? No, we know it won’t go away,” she said. “Are we willing to compromise ... to where everybody’s comfortable with it? I think we’re that kind of group.”

Councilman Danny Scarth, who represents the east/northeast/far north District 4, has reminded his colleagues of the public art ordinance’s goal — to bring more art into neighborhoods.

Some council members have wondered whether the money could be better assigned to a fewer number of high-impact projects. The Public Art program’s 2013 plan includes work on scores of projects and is headlined by work on six bridge monuments and 10 watershed markers in the 8-mile path of the Chisholm Trail Parkway.

Scarth said he’s willing to go along with the public art piece as long as “it’s spread out all over the city.”

Asked where he believes the council will end up, Scarth said, “My sense is that we’ll end up either with no [public art allocation] or a reduced amount. I don’t see the full 2 percent surviving the whole exercise.”

Funding public art

Through the 2004 and 2008 bond programs, public art projects have been assigned to street, park, library, fire station and animal shelter projects. About $2.3 million from the city’s critical capital needs program in 2007 was assigned to public art.

The Arts Council receives another $1 million annually from the city’s water capital budget. About $700,000 of that goes to management, maintenance and conservation of the public art program, leaving about $300,000 annually for commissioned public art projects.

Jordan said he wants to review the entire public art ordinance.

In response to the city’s questions, the Arts Council is changing the way the public art plan has typically come together with bond elections.

In the past, the Fort Worth Art Commission — the volunteer board that advises the City Council on the public art program — has met with the council and staff after voters approve bond packages to form priorities. The commission drafts a plan, holds two public hearings and sends it to the council for a vote.

For 2014, the Art Commission will be working to come up with a plan before the election, said Martha Peters, vice president of public art.

“The voters will have a sense of the direction we’re heading in before the election,” Peters said.

Major arterials and facilities like the proposed far north library present opportunities for public art projects, Peters said.

She’ll also talk to council members about the idea for fewer projects with higher impact. “Council members will have to be open about less impact in their districts,” she said.

Fort Worth risks falling into a trap if it cuts back on public art, said Greg Ibanez, the Art Commission chairman.

“I just don’t think great cities get that choice,” he said. “They have to figure out ways to keep things going.”

Greater needs?

Some council members have criticized certain projects. Mayor Pro Tem W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman has questioned two sets of curb mosaics in Ridglea Hills completed as part of the 2004 bond package, and a highly touted water-funded mosaic that’s out of the public view at the city’s secure Westside Water Treatment Plant.

“We need to be focused on infrastructure,” he said. “I don’t see public art as an integral part of the bond package right now.”

Peters notes that the late Councilman Chuck Silcox advanced the idea for the curb mosaics, the council voted on the plan containing them, and it votes on each project funded by the annual water allocation. The water plant has cutting-edge technology that draws professional visitors, and the mosaic is on full view, she said.

“I feel we’re being criticized for a council directive we’ve received in the past,” Peters said.

Price and some other council members have asked for a review of how pieces are chosen for the public art collection.

“I think we might make everybody happier if we had a little more oversight on the council,” she said.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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