How Much Should Raleigh Spend on Public Art?

By Brent Woodcox

Before I begin this post, I just want to say that I am a supporter of public art and artists in general. I think that civic projects that incorporate art have the potential to make Raleigh unique and feature the work of local artists and creators. The creative class plays a vital role in our city in making it a place that is infused with culture and inspiration.

But are we spending too much on public art?

From a News & Observer article last week...

Two new bridges being built along Capital Boulevard just north of downtown Raleigh will be wider, easier to navigate and friendlier to pedestrians.

They’ll also be works of art.

The spans and abutment sidewalls of the Wade Avenue bridge over Capital and the Capital bridge over Peace Street will be covered with a steel grill designed by an artist based in suburban Seattle. Vicki Scuri’s work has appeared on all kinds of bridges, parking garages and other public works across the country, but this will be her first in the Triangle. ...

The City of Raleigh has long worked to incorporate art into public projects. In 2009, the City Council required that 1/2 percent of the cost of city construction projects be devoted to public art, resulting in sculptures at the Buffalo Road Aquatic Center, the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts and Fire Station 12, among other places. In 2016, the council increased the amount to 1 percent. ...

The state is covering most of the cost of the project, but the city is putting up money for accessories such as a greenway trail, street trees and the art. The city is paying Scuri $40,000 to design the bridge art and oversee its creation and has budgeted $880,000 for materials and installation, though that figure will go up because it didn’t include the late addition of the grillwork on the abutments. ...
— Richard Stradling - N&O

So it looks like the city is headed toward spending more than $900,000 on the art portion of the bridge construction that is currently taking place on Capital Boulevard. That's a lot of money but arguably worth it to make the bridge more aesthetically pleasing especially in a place that has effectively served as the welcome mat to downtown Raleigh for drivers entering the city from the north. At least one local conservative activist wasn't buying that argument though.

This public art project is indefensible on so many levels. Last year we heard from Raleigh’s leadership that tax increases were necessary to fund critical salary increases for Raleigh’s police and firefighters along with affordable housing needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Raleigh’s downtown leadership should be honest with taxpayers. It is not necessary government services such as providing proper compensation for public servants that drive tax increases. It is outrageously wasteful projects such as this. Raleigh should immediately reduce the the allocation level for public art to pre-2016 levels or, better yet, eliminate the public art ordinance entirely.
— Joey Stansbury - Wake Watch

My question more one of priority. At a time when the city has just approved a road construction bond that has required raising taxes, when we know that building bus rapid transit corridors out as planned will require land acquisition and new construction costs being paid by the city and when Mayor McFarlane has recently expressed her desire to see the city take a larger role in building sidewalks and bike lanes to connect people to transit options, is this amount of spending on one public art project wise?

Why is there an arbitrary 1% requirement anyway? It seems like that type of mechanical target for funding art will necessitate funding art regardless of whether it can be incorporated well into the project.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples of recent public art projects funded by the city.

The first was funded in conjunction with the widening of Sandy Forks Road. 

This piece was intended to emphasize the bioretention features incorporated into the project.

This piece was intended to emphasize the bioretention features incorporated into the project.

This was designed to be a "whimsical play on basketball."

This was designed to be a "whimsical play on basketball."

I don't mean to single out these pieces as being of low quality. But in a park, wouldn't it just be better to have more basketball goals and basketball courts. The uses of those courts would be practical if not as "whimsical."

If the city wants to fund public art (and it should), why not just have a separate line item in the budget for funding public art? You could put the Raleigh Art and Public Design Board in charge of finding the most civically minded and Raleigh specific projects that are worthy of funding. It wouldn't arbitrarily have to be forced into the design of an unrelated road widening project.

Meanwhile, the extra 1% of transportation funding could be used to incorporate bike lanes, bus shelters and sidewalks into road construction projects and help to make complete streets a reality for walkers, cyclists and drivers.

I think it is time to re-examine the 1% public art funding requirement to see if it is accomplishing the goal that Raleigh says it has "to establish a vibrant visual environment that provides public places with civic distinction."

Let's fund art in the art budget. Let's fund road construction in the transportation budget.

Let's let artists create art and transportation planners plan road construction.

And let's have a Raleigh that is more creative and vibrant and unique and walkable and pedestrian and cyclist friendly all at the same time.

Brent Woodcox