Fort Worth’s public art picture is unclear

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The more the Fort Worth City Council talks about public art, the more confusing the topic gets.

It starts out pretty simple: The council passed an ordinance in 2001 saying the city would dedicate 2 percent of each capital improvements bond program, plus 2 percent of the operating expenses of the Water and Sewer Fund, to create and maintain works of public art.

The Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County provides day-to-day administration for the program and consults with the Fort Worth Art Commission in preparing an annual public art plan.

The Water and Sewer Fund provided about $1 million last year, which city officials say pretty much paid administrative and maintenance costs.

The council is planning a $292 million bond election next May. Two percent of that would provide $5.84 million for art works more-or-less tied to individual bond projects throughout the city.

That’s the end of the easy part.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, who represents District 6 on the south/southwest side of the city, is the one gumming up the works. But he has some good points.

Jordan has served on the council for seven years, long enough to have his finger on the pulse of his district. He says the people who elected him would rather spend the money on completing a large park than spreading it out on different art projects.

You can’t do that, a phalanx of attorneys told the council Tuesday — or at least you can’t have a single council member decide individually how the money will be spent in a specific district.

“The (bond) propositions are city-wide, which makes the public art program city-wide,” said Deputy City Attorney Peter Vaky.

So let’s say Jordan is right and the people in his district would rather have a new park than more public art. If voters in the rest of the city approve the bond program and its public art element, Jordan’s constituents have no choice but to accept the art projects.

They could have, say, a part of a park with a real nice mural where the swings and picnic tables and open space should be.

But they can’t be sure whether it will be a mural, or what the mural would depict. That’s because the specific art projects don’t get planned until after the election.

Even for a while after that, when architects and engineers are working on the details of the bond projects, the arts money sits in a pot and waits. The art itself isn’t planned until it’s known what its environment will look like.

Jordan tied the council in knots with another suggestion: Provide voters with a separate bond proposition allocating a specific dollar amount for public art or funding for some specific art projects.

The lawyers had to consult with the state attorney general’s office about that one. No city in Texas has ever done it that way, they said, and the AG’s office initially balked at the idea.

Finally, the lawyers said, the AG’s attorneys agreed that they would approve such a proposition, but they said they would want to know beforehand what the public art would be and how the money would be spent.

But wait: Voters in Fort Worth don’t get that kind of information under the way things are done now, and it’s their money. How come the attorney general’s office can require advance approval of the projects but the voters can’t?

From the looks of things, all Jordan may be accomplishing is to muddy the waters on public art. Comments from other council members and from Mayor Betsy Price seemed mostly to favor no changes in the public art funding process, although it might be a close vote.

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