Mayor's Report to City Council on Public Art

Mayor’s Report to City Council
Study Session April 17, 2016
 
Introduction
Some time ago, amid animated discussions of a proposed piece of public art to be installed in the island between the Library and Fire Station #1, the Council requested that an ad hoc committee be established to consider possible changes to the process by which public art is selected.  As it is the Mayor's responsibility to establish ad hoc committees (subject to Council confirmation) I suggested an alternative: that I and staff (Analyst Ann Seltzer) would interview the Historic Commission members and report back to the Council.  The Council accepted that change and Ann and I are now making the promised report.
 
We interviewed individually all but one of the HC commissioners plus noted historic architectural consultant, George Kramer, and also interviewed all six of the Public Art Commission members in two groups of three to avoid convening a quorum.
 
Initial Observations:
 
1)  An enhanced appreciation for the caliber of commissioners on both commissions.
 
2) A surprising degree of agreement among the interviewees that the input from the Historic Commission should not interfere with the creative process of the artist producing the selected piece.
 
3) Some minor changes that could be made to the selection process.
 
4) An underlying conundrum that must be resolved by the Council as the decision-makers of last resort for the City.
 
Conundrum
 
Let's start with point number 4)…
 
In the discussion within our community that led up to this report it was frequently mentioned that 'serious', i.e. highest quality, art is frequently met with disapproval and rejection, especially from anyone not fully informed about art, its history and purpose.  And, in fact, sometimes by art experts themselves.  This is not intended to imply that those without an art/art history background can't appreciate 'serious' art and, in fact, many Ashland citizens did.
 
Nowadays the works of  the Impressionists are widely loved and revered in Western society.  However, when they first appeared they were reviled by many, including art experts of the time.  Today we wonder how anyone could reject the incredible beauty and emotional impact of these now master works.
 
And in that question lies the kernel of the conundrum that faces the Council.  [A paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma: "the conundrum ... of achieving full employment without inflation" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.)]
 
Beauty wasn't the issue with the Impressionists; redefining reality was.  Their work was based on a break-through insight into perception itself and the nature of light and color.  The Impressionists ushered those viewers who were willing into a new awareness of the interdependence of the 'external' world and the 'inner' world of human consciousness and emotion.
 
"Serious" art (in the same sense that we say, "serious" drama or theater) really revolves around this idea of changing the viewer's experience of reality.  This is not an easy task and, by definition, it is going to be met with resistance, alarm, criticism, etc. by people whose lives are involved with very different issues and, especially, when they believe* they are paying taxes that go to fund the 'disruptive' ** piece of public art. (It's important to remember that it is also likely there will be people whose lives are illuminated and enriched by the 'serious' art and who defend it passionately.)
 
* Public art in Ashland, incidentally, is paid for with a small % of the Room Tax [dedicated to tourism?].
** A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances. The term was defined and phenomenon analyzed by Clayton M. Christensen beginning in 1995.[2] More recent sources also include "significant societal impact" as an aspect of disruptive innovation
 
This reality-shift is inherent in the nature of art and the resistance to it is therefore inherent in the seemingly innocent enterprise of improving the community by installing really good public art.  And aspiring, say, to have public visual art in Ashland that is on a par with our public dramatic art as exemplified by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  "There's the rub!".
 
It is a given that there will be public outcry and recrimination - and not at all surprising if it comes from some - but not all - of those most deeply involved in preserving Ashland's historic character.
 
Yes, But...
 
I think everyone on both the Historic and Public Art Commission are well aware of what I've just stated and its implication that you can't have high quality public art if the Historic Commission interferes with the artist's creative process.  In fact it may be the 'job' of the public art to clash with the  aesthetic values, favorite views, the familiar feeling of Downtown, etc. of some members of the public. 
 
Real art, meaningful art, serious art may be in tension with, rather than harmonious with, the familiar look and feel of Ashland, particularly with Downtown.
 
But in the last resort several interviewees simply didn't like the proposed piece.  And some raised the issue of how do you distinguish bad serious art from good serious art - or good serious art placed in the wrong spot.
 
Call for the Question
 
So here's what it boils down to:
 
The Council cannot guarantee in advance that a proposed piece of public art will be high quality or properly located and the only thing that can be almost guaranteed is that it will be unpopular or unsettling for some, even many citizens.
 
Clearly the safe course of action is have no public art or to entrust it to the Historic Commission and abandon the Public Art Commission.  But think what Ashland would be like today if Angus Bowmer had been replaced by P.T. Barnum (not to impugn the HC).  This is a community that values innovation and I personally believe that we should pursue innovation in public art as well.
 
Ultimately, the Council has to put an unusual amount of responsibility and trust in its Public Art Commission - plus hedge their bets a little by offering historical input to the selected artists before they begin their creative process.  And, lastly, the Council should inform itself about what is going on in contemporary art circles, plus make this experience available to interested members of the public.
 
But a Council that wants genuine public art is going to have to brace itself for public upset as part of the package.  It would be wise to seek out and facilitate public reaction, both negative and positive rather than move the decision unobtrusively through the approval process.   As we all have learned over the years, there's one thing that surpasses public dislike for a particular Council decision and that is dislike for being ignored or not listened to.
 
And one final thing to consider:  placing a controversial piece of pubic art on the island between the Library and Fire Station, could draw more people to the Up-Town District.
 
Specific Suggestions
 
1.  Have the PAC appear before the HC when an RFQ for new public art is being created and seek HC input for that RFQ.  (This has already been done for the Theater Corridor project, next to Eathly Goods.)
 
2.   Ask the PAC to explore the possibility of requiring 3D maquettes* be used by finalists in the selection process, for presenting their concepts.  (This tool is not as sophisticated as the computer generated 3D rendering used by applicants for planning approval to present their projects to the HC and with which the HC is familiar.  However 3D rendering is expensive, not  yet commonly used in the field of public art and therefore not something candidates can be expected to provide.  Either process, however, makes assessing size and scale much more feasible.)  The RFQ for the Theater Corridor project - coming to the Council for approval in June - requires 3D maquettes.
 
* A usually scaled-down version or model of an intended work such as a sculpture or mural.
 
3.  IF a finalist artist seeks historical input, enlist the HC's assistance in providing this input, preferably in person and on-site.
 
4.  When concepts for public art in or near a historic district are being considered for final approval HC written input should re requested by the PAC and linked to online representations of the concepts.  This should include, but not be limited to, specific observations regarding to scale, placement, size and materials.  The link should be conveyed to the HC via PAC and HC staff liaisons.
 
5.  The Mayor strongly recommends that HC members attend any public presentation of public art concepts rather than relying on online or two-dimensional renderings.
 
6.  The Mayor requires the HC to incorporate majority AND minority opinions on any public art recommendation it makes to the City Council.
 
7.  The PAC will notify the HC when the PAC is intending to make a presentation to the Council regarding public art in a historic district.
 
8.  Once the PAC has solicited input from the HC for an RFQ by a reasonable deadline, the PAC will not be required to delay its process in order to incorporate input from the HC.
 
9.  The Mayor recommends that the Council invite the PAC to make a presentation to it concerning current trends in public art - and that this session be well publicized in order to attract as many interested citizens as possible.
 
10.  Re Susan Zocolla's 'second option':  when the concept is ready to be presented to the Council this should be widely publicized. The video of the Council meeting will capture that presentation and discussion. The concept will be posted online when it is received so that the public will have ample opportunity to view and comment to the Council about both concepts, prior to the Council's decision to choose one of the two.
 
11.  Also the PAC should verify that the second option conforms to the specifications of the original RFQ.
 
Process Roadmap
 
Ann created a 'process roadmap' to assist in a complex set of processes associated with the proposed public art on the Calle.  If the participants find it helpful we may create similar ones for all public art installations that involve multiple City entities.  

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