A proposed public-art program that would be funded, in part, by mandatory contributions from companies that receive economic-development incentives from the city, already has its critics on the Fort Wayne City Council.
The measure was set to be introduced on March 13, discussed on March 20 and then come to a vote on March 27, but Republican Councilman Russ Jehl said, in his opinion, “I’m inclined to think that at this point the proposal is not ready for prime time.”
Mayor Tom Henry and City Councilmen Glynn Hines, both Democrats, and Tom Freistroffer, a Republican, accompanied by representatives from Arts United, announced the proposal March 8. It calls for the establishment of a 13-member volunteer arts commission made up of appointments from arts organizations and arts schools, as well as the city council and the mayor’s office.
“Public art helps create interesting and vibrant spaces, the kinds of places that people want to visit and come back to,” Henry said in the announcement of the proposal. “Public art tells our unique story to residents and visitors and communicates that we value quality of life, creativity, culture and diversity.”
Freistroffer expressed a similar sentiment.
“I think that arts are an important, intricate amenity of the landscape of any city,” he said. “I think that it reveals the city’s character, I think it reveals the history of the city. I think that millennials are involved with art and I think that that helps bring millennials to our city, young people which are the future of our jobs.”
The commission would review and select art that would be displayed in public spaces, with the goal of enhancing the visual environment and strengthening the positive reputation, brand and stature of Fort Wayne and its neighborhoods.
The program is modeled on similar programs in other cities, Hines said later in an interview, and extending the arts installations outside of downtown to the neighborhoods is a big plus.
A lot of businesses are already including works of art in their plans.
“This would encourage that, make things more attractive, not just bricks and mortar,” Hines said. “For the aesthetic value of the community, it’s a great idea.”
“Do you want a public arts commission? I think so,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why you would not. And our city could use it. The more public art the better, and especially when we do art, to make it quality. It could use an artistic eye rather than a bureaucrat’s eye.”
But it’s the funding mechanism that may become a sticking point.
The ordinance would create a public-art fund to be overseen by the commission. Private grants and donations could be made to the fund, and a public-art “giveback” program also would be established. The giveback program would require developers who receive financing incentives – specifically through tax increment financing districts – from the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission to contribute, from their own funds, an amount equal to 1 percent of the incentive to the art fund, up to a maximum $100,000.
About half of the giveback would go toward neighborhood art projects, Freistroffer said.
Originally, he continued, the contributions were also going to be linked to tax abatements, but the sponsors decided to limit it to TIF districts because that money comes back to the city anyway in the form of increased property taxes.
“If it’s part of your public infrastructure, if it’s part of your citizenry, part of what your young people are going to experience as they grow within the city,” Freistroffer said. “I think it’s part of economic development.”
Jehl, a commercial real estate broker, is leery.
“I have negotiated an awful lot of business deals, and you don’t want to complicate them,” he said. “Most people can see the value of public art. Most people believe asking for a small amount in economic development seems to make sense, but it’s amazing how tiny little things start complicating a deal. I’m very concerned that something very well intentioned could complicate the economic-development process.”
Hines said the measure’s proponents debated whether the contribution should be mandatory or voluntary, and came down on the side of mandatory.
“In the cities where this has worked, it is not voluntary,” he said. “In the cities where they had some problems, it was voluntary. Unless we get a lot of pushback, we thought we would try it as being required.”
Jehl also is concerned about the possibility that the city would create a new administrative position to manage the program that would end up consuming a lot of the funding.
“If that is the case, that is a nonstarter,” he said, claiming he would prefer the city establish the arts commission first, and then examine the funding and other issues later.
More than 350 U.S. cities have dedicated funding mechanisms for public art, including Indianapolis, Toledo and Munster, the announcement of the proposal noted, adding that “cities throughout the country recognize that public art contributes positively to economic-development factors such as business and talent attraction and retention, cultural tourism, education, equity, and neighborhood revitalization.”