Art should speak to the soul. Public art – projects funded with taxpayer dollars – should inspire, reflect a community’s values and foster a sense of place.
In Tucson, unfortunately, some public art projects are in such disrepair that they’re falling apart, or are fenced off for safety concerns or are in danger of becoming unsalvageable.
Tucson and Pima County were thoughtful and innovative when they began in 1989 requiring that 1 percent of a public capital improvement project be allocated to a public art project.
The failing, however, was that ongoing maintenance costs were not included, and we’re now seeing the results.
The Star’s Kathleen Allen recently examined the condition of public art pieces in Tucson and Pima County and found that many of the roughly 200 on display show the effects of neglected maintenance and repair. Most of the degraded art pieces are within Tucson city limits.
By their very nature, public art pieces aren’t easily hidden away and ignored. Tucson can’t just throw a sheet over the deteriorating Rattlesnake Bridge that spans Broadway heading into downtown and hope no one notices.
That visibility — one quality that makes public art a good community investment — has repercussions beyond letting taxpayer-funded physical resources degrade.
Consider two significant pieces of public art on the eastern gateway of downtown Tucson: the Rattlesnake Bridge is losing its “skin” and is noticeably cracked. The tiles in the large 1999 photo mural, “Windows to the Past, Gateway to the Future,” need to be r e-caulked to keep them in place.
Without upkeep, these compelling works of art — art isn’t necessarily pretty, but it should be interesting and thought-provoking — turn into visual litter.
The Broadway underpass that features these projects is supposed to be an entryway into a rejuvenated and spruced up downtown — an image not improved by a shabby and faded snake bridge.
The price tags, of course, are stumbling blocks. Money for maintenance and repair were assumed to be covered by the departments that are responsible for the capital improvement project. For example, the Rattlesnake Bridge falls under the Tucson Transportation Department; the Parks and Recreation Department tries to maintain art pieces in parks with its $25,000 annual maintenance budget.
Municipal budgets have been stretched with lower tax revenues and the bad economy, and in lean years anything that doesn’t involve roads, public safety or parks quickly becomes a low priority.
As a result, art project maintenance and repair has ground to a halt. Projects that have become eyesores or hazards go wanting or are fenced off because the dollars don’t exist.
But, as with anything, the disrepair in time destroys the public’s initial investment. It’s a waste.
Clearly, Tucson must take another approach. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said on Bill Buckmaster’s local news radio program Friday that he didn’t realize that the neglect had become so pervasive until he read Allen’s report.
He said the city should allocate some of the 1 percent set aside for public art to pay for maintenance and conservation of existing pieces instead of creating new pieces. Money for capital projects can’t legally be spent on maintenance, so it’s not as simple as shifting dollars around.
Rothschild likened it to parks in that Tucsonans would like to have more open spaces for recreation, but the budget limitations require that the city spend on keeping up existing parks, not building new ones.
“We’re going to have to take care of the public art projects we have,” he said.
It’s simple common sense.
Some municipalities already include maintenance budgets in their public art planning. Tucson should do what’s necessary to follow suit.
Public art is an important contributor to our community’s cultural life, and is an investment that should be protected and preserved.