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The 2001 sculpture Cradle, by Allan Rosenbaum, can be seen at the Richmond Ambulance Authority off Hermitage Road. Photo by Isaac Harrell
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The Thin Blue Line , a welded stainless-steel sculpture by Michael Stutz that adorns police headquarters, cost $140,000 Photo by Isaac Harrell
News flash: Richmond's Public Art Commission will receive $2.8 million next year. That's about three times what Richmond has allotted for public art in the entire 22-year history of the commission.
"We've been so under the radar, mostly dealing with budgets of $25,000 to $35,000, that this is coming as kind of shock to people," says longtime commission member and artist Paul DiPasquale, who has created such indelible (if privately funded) public art pieces as Richmond's Arthur Ashe statue and the likeness of King Neptune in Virginia Beach. "It's not a wish any longer, it's reality."
The 11-member PAC was already making headlines before this. Last year, City Council's Bruce Tyler and Kathy Graziano each introduced separate ordinances to limit art money slated for Richmond's $146 million Justice Center. The concern was that the city would be providing art for the incarcerated while more pressing city services were feeling the budget pinch.
"In a way, we really have Bruce Tyler and Kathy Graziano to thank," DiPasquale says. "They made us sharpen our pencils and do research and note what was happening nationally with public art."
What they found was that Richmond lagged far behind other cities. The city's PAC has commissioned 39 projects in 22 years, spending a bit more than $889,000. That's chump change for some communities. DiPasquale cites Arlington as a Virginia locale that regularly spends $2.8 million or more a year — and now has a nationally recognized public art program with popular tourist destinations, such as its Dark Star Park.
Richmond's planning commission created the PAC in 1991. Six years later, City Council passed an ordinance tying PAC funding to building and open-space construction in the Capital Improvement budget. This plan to give 1 percent of new-project monies to public art was specifically designed by the late Charles Peters, an early member of the commission, to take politics out of the equation.
"Whether it was a community center or a firehouse, 1 percent of that budget went to public art," says artist Sally Bowring, a longtime commissioner and coordinator of the PAC before resigning in December. "Charles made sure that the money went through administratively, through the planning commission, and not politically, through City Council. That gets the politicians off the hook with constituents who don't see the value of public art."
Councilwoman Graziano withdrew her opposition and now supports the commission; Councilman Tyler was defeated in the last election (ironically) by former PAC commissioner Jon Baliles, who helped bring the RVA Street Art Festival to the Canal Walk last year. And while Baliles is thrilled by the new infusion of public art money, he also has questions — for instance, in the mayor's Capital Improvement Budget, there is a specific mention of a statue of Jackson Ward business trailblazer Maggie Walker.
"The city has to budget the money because that's in the law," Baliles says. "What's not in the law is the mayor's office or City Council telling them what to spend it on." He supports a tribute to Walker, but under the 1 percent rule, the stipulation would appear to be unlawful. "There are no new gazillion-dollar capital projects in that area," he says. "And what if the PAC should decide not to do a statue but another type of memorial to honor her? That's their decision."
The PAC doesn't make decisions in a vacuum, proponents claim. "The public is invited to give input at the commission's monthly meetings," Bowring says. "What happens is that commissioners pick a site-selection team of five or seven people for a project. You want to have the architect that's involved, three artists and someone from the neighborhood. … You have to have neighborhood buy-in."
First, the PAC calls for submissions, sometimes internationally. "And then artists reply," Bowring says. "Out of that, the site team gets the entries, maybe a hundred, and looks through all of them."
Eventually, a winner is selected and gets a contract. "That money is all the money they get. If they go over budget, it's their problem."
Baliles notes that the $2.8 million was originally slotted for 2015 and 2016. "Now it's all in 2014. The changes were made last minute by the mayor's office, and I'm wondering why the rush. The PAC, the way it is supposed to function, it would be very difficult for them to handle all of these projects at the same time."
Asked about this, mayoral press secretary Tammy Hawley says that Mayor Dwight Jones merely "expressed a desire" when he mentioned a Maggie Walker statue. As for the consolidation of funds, "prior CIP budgets had omitted the required public art line item, [and] the money will definitely carry over" if it isn't used in 2014.
In addition to the Justice Center (Baliles is quick to note that art won't be in the facility but in the surrounding neighborhood — perhaps at the nearby African-American burial ground), the $2.8 million in new money will cover public art at four new schools. Normally, he says, school construction is exempt from compliance with the 1 percent rule. "If the money had been given to the school board to build the schools, they wouldn't be required to fund the 1 percent in public art. Because [the new schools] are being funded through capital projects, it has to budget it."
None of this concerns current members of the commission. "I don't have any uncertainty about it," Paul DiPasquale says, while the PAC's new chairwoman, Susan Reed, sees the niggling details as "a way to open new possibilities for the commission."
"What the mayor has done is he's put a chicken in there, and now we have the egg, or maybe he's put the egg in there and we wait for the chicken," DiPasquale concludes. "But we do have one or the other. And I'm happy to have either one."
For more on the Public Art Commission, visit publicartrva.tumblr.com.