The Allegheny County Council, which oversees Pittsburgh and its surrounding districts, voted overwhelmingly to gut its percent for public art law on Tuesday.
Established in 2005, Allegheny’s percent for art law set aside two percent of the budget for County-funded public projects (up to $100,000) for the inclusion of public art. It was actually never implemented in the first place; many on the Council didn’t even realize it existed, until Council Member Heather Heidelbaugh introduced a bill to jumpstart it.
Months later, Council Members Michael Finnerty and Bob Macey introduced the bill to end percent for art funding. Both bills were on last night’s agenda, following what Heidelbaugh sarcastically called a “coincidence” of committee-level scheduling.
Finnerty and Mace’s legislation amends the original percent for art law. It removes any specific allocations for funding, rendering the law effectively a suggestion for public art.
“I’ve taken out the money that was involved, and that’s what this amounts to,” Finnerty said. “I don’t think that we should be having taxpayers’ money set aside.”
“We’re elected officials, that’s our job,” Finnerty went on. “I have great regard for the arts, without a doubt, and I think that we can get an art committee together, and if you come up with projects you can come before us like any other committee and ask us to fund the [project].”
Amanda Gross, lead artist of the popular public art project Knit the Bridge, was among the two dozen or so artists and arts advocates who attended last night’s meeting to testify in support of percent for art. She spoke about the process of seeking out funds for public art, and whom it favors.
“Although Knit the Bridge… depended on the hard work and love of so many individuals, it happened because the supporting organization, Fiberarts Guild, and the core group of organizers, have a base of race privilege and affluent networks,” Gross said, citing fundraising connections, access to a pro bono attorney, and organizers’ ability to work without the guarantee of pay. “Cutting off democratic public access will disproportionately impact artists without wealth and artists of color. This serves to make Allegheny County’s public sphere even less inclusive.”
In what seemed to be an ad lib addendum to her testimony, Gross continued, “that Allegheny County would take any sort of credit for Knit the Bridge and tout it as a project that is a success, and then at the same time turn around and gut funding that would support public arts and arts in the future, is despicable.”
Many other speakers took issue with what they repeatedly called the bill’s “utilitarian” perspective, and testified on the cultural and social importance of supporting the arts. Some, however, insisted that there is practical value to public art, citing increased tourism, construction jobs, and even functional artworks (lampposts, benches, etc.).
The Council was unswayed, voting 11-4 for the amendment.
Council Member Sue Means tied her vote specifically to building maintenance needs throughout the County, where she said employees have been working in unsafe conditions, including at a mold-infested health clinic.
“I just can’t support the the use of public funds for this when we have buildings that are unsafe,” Means said.
Means does not mean that the percent for art text precludes funding in any other arena, which of course it doesn’t. She is just continuing a global pattern of turning to arts and culture for spending cuts when resources are low and public needs are high.
For his part, Council Member Ed Kress said, “some of the statements I heard [at this meeting] is that, hey, we do have a vibrant arts community. But these monies aren’t being used for it anyways. So you’re not going to be missing anything here.”
I stepped over to speak with artist Anna Brewer, who was the most visibly appalled by this comment.
“It’s a very regressive statement,” she said. “It’s saying, we’ve gotten this far, why don’t you keep chugging along with shoestring budgets, and a lack of access to public funds, to make important and meaningful work.”
After the Finnerty/Macey amendment passed, Heidelbaugh’s bill was up. Hers was a motion to create the Public Arts Board that is mandated by the percent for art law, but was never filled.
It passed near-unanimously (I’m guessing the one nay-vote, which came from an openly confused council member who had phoned in to the meeting, was a mistake, based on Finnerty’s bemused reaction.) Of course, the mood in the room following this win was still pretty deflated, considering the PAB will oversee a program that had its teeth pulled minutes before.
Meanwhile, Means wondered, what other laws are just sitting around, having slipped Allegheny County’s mind?
“It’s upsetting that something was passed and never implemented,” she said. “It concerns me that maybe there’s other ordinances that were also not put in place.”