Dallas Will Commission Public Art, But Don’t Ask Them to Actually Maintain It

 

Francis Bagley and Tom Orr, "Wildlife Water Theater," 2001 (night view) 43 steel poles, 20 polycarbonate light poles, 15 floating fiberglass disks, 10 cast stone land elements, 12 aluminum educational wildlife charts, 1 solar system. Courtesy of the artist.
Francis Bagley and Tom Orr, “Wildlife Water Theater,” 2001 (night view) 43 steel poles, 20 polycarbonate light poles, 15 floating fiberglass disks, 10 cast stone land elements, 12 aluminum educational wildlife charts, 1 solar system. Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve written about why I think Dallas’ public art program is ill-conceived, but here’s another instance of the public art program’s short-sightedness. Dallas comes up with funds to commission art works via a “percent for art ordinance,” which basically ties art funding to city spending on capital projects. That funding tool, however, doesn’t deal with the problem of maintaining public art pieces as they age.

Case in point: this particularly beloved work by the artists Tom Orr and Francis Bagley, an installation consisting of numerous poles, some illuminated, that poke out of the water and function as a “stage” for the wildlife at White Rock Lake. This past January, the Office of Cultural Affairs said they wanted to remove the piece because they couldn’t afford to maintain it (many of the installation’s features, like its lights, no longer work). The city killed its maintenance budget for public art in 2009, and now new pieces of public art are required to need little or no maintenance or upkeep — as if the ordinance needed yet another stipulation to limit proposed art projects. But this particular art work has a lot of fans, and they are not very happy about the city’s desire to trash it. After a bit of a hubbub, the Office of Cultural Affairs announced they will hold public meetings on the matter this Saturday and next Monday at the Bath House Culture Center at 10 a.m.

In an email, Bagley says that the Cultural Affairs Commission’s decision creates a bad precedent: commission art now, trash it later. It also sounds like bad policy. Why go through the arduous and expensive process of commissioning art if there is no way of maintaining that art? It gets back to my problems with percent for art ordinance in the first place, the way the inflexible funding mechanism prizes quantity over quality. The ordinance will ensure that there are funds to throw up some concrete arches at a fire station somewhere in the northern hinterlands, but it doesn’t provide any funds for preserving Orr and Bagley’s piece at White Rock, one of the few thoughtful pieces of public art the City of Dallas has commissioned. Instead, it will likely fall back on Dallas’ usual cultural strategy: “Go find some rich guy to help you.”