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San Diego’s public art head-scratcher

September 16, 2010 - 3:13 pm

Chicago's Millennium Park, a public-art mecca. Photo by Patrick Pyszka

This post has been updated from an earlier version that contained incorrect information.

Earlier today, Mayor Jerry Sanders issued a memo recommending that the City Council agree to temporarily suspend a city program that provides funding for local public-arts projects.

The memo says:

At present, the City is considering substantial and deep cuts in all General Fund services for the Fiscal Year 2012…. It is highly probable that these cuts will include making permanent the “rolling brown-outs” at fire stations, lay-offs of sworn policy personnel and closure of city facilities.

While the goals of public art are important and commendable, they must be closely examined at a time when our public safety goals cannot be adequately funded.

How much the city spends on public art each year under this program isn’t clear—the amount’s not listed in the annual arts and culture commission budget. Alex Roth, the mayor’s spokesperson, said they’re working on getting that total. The memo seems to be in response to this story from Channel 6 about money that’s been earmarked for public art at two new fire stations. According to the request for proposals that went out on Monday, $157,000 apiece was set aside for art to be located at the new Hillcrest and Mid-City stations.

Under a 2004 City Council policy, 2 percent of funding for large city-funded capital-improvement projects must be spent on public art:

This policy is intended to promote the cultural heritage and artistic development of the City to enhance its character and identity, to contribute to economic development and tourism, to add warmth, dignity, beauty, and accessibility to public places and to increase opportunities for City residents to experience and participate in the visual, performing, and literary arts by directing the inclusion of public art in Capital Improvements Program projects initiated by the City and other public improvement projects undertaken by the Redevelopment Agency. [emphasis added]

That’s all fine, good and admirable. San Diego’s public art is woefully inadequate. Anyone who’s traveled to a city with a robust public-art program knows how powerful it can be when it’s the right design in the right location. In that regard, San Diego’s program is a head-scratcher:

* Why does the art need to be located at the site of the public building? A community center or park is one thing; a fire station—which is not an accessible public place where residents can “experience and participate in” art—is another.

* And, actually, the council policy appears to acknowledge this:

A work of public art shall not be located at or near any publicly owned facility to which the public is denied access due to security concerns or for any other reason. [emphasis added]

So, even if plans to put art at the two fire stations aren’t moving forward, were the plans legit to begin with? At some point this public-art program will start up again and it seems that there are things to be ironed out.

I’ll update this post with answers when I get ’em.

Addendum: Here’s one more oddity: In the Channel 6 story, Assistant Chief Brian Fennesse questions why the money for the art can’t be transferred over to the Fire Department’s budget. But, according to the request for proposals: “funding  for  the  artwork(s)  is  provided  by  the  Fire‐Rescue Department of the City of San Diego.”

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