As Lexington residents celebrate (and sit on) the latest public art installation — 35 fiberglass benches featuring books by Kentucky authors — the city is mulling establishing a dedicated funding stream to fund more projects like it.
Earlier this month, a committee of the Lexington council voted to move a proposal to the full council that would set aside 1 percent of the amount the city borrows or bonds each year for public art. That could be as much as $300,000 a year for public art, depending on how much the city borrows each year.
The full Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council will likely take its first vote at a council work session Aug. 14.
The city currently funds public art on an ad hoc basis. For example, the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, includes $100,000 for a sculpture to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
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The public appetite for public art started in 2000 with LexArt's Horse Mania that used fiber glass horses as canvases. It's 2010 reincarnation was also popular. Over the past decade, LexArtS, a nonprofit art organization, has also used private and grant funding to increase the number of public murals.
But what Lexington is missing is a master public art plan that would direct where public art should go, said Jenifer Wuorenmaa, a senior city administrator.
A master public art plan would answer key questions: Where do we need public art? How can we use public art to activate public spaces? Wuorenemaa said.
Councilman Bill Farmer said it was a trip to Portland, Ore., in the late 1990s that spurred his interest in public art. He had floated the idea of a dedicated funding stream several times over the past decades but it wasn't until Mayor Jim Gray took office that he found an administration that was open to the idea.
"This administration has been very supportive," Farmer said. "This brings us a new mechanism that allows us to pair public money with other money such as grants and private fundraising."
Nan Plummer, president and CEO of LexArts, the sponsor of the book benches project, said that installation is funded through city money, tourism money, private fundraising and the Downtown Lexington Management District.
Plummer told the council's General Government and Social Services committee during a June 5 meeting that a dedicated funding stream could be used to leverage federal and state grants and private money.
"This would not be the only funding that would come to public art," Plummer said. "This framework would also enhance the spread of public art... into all districts of the city not just in downtown."
For example, Livestream, a 2016 installation at Jacobson Park, is funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
More than 350 cities across the country have dedicated funding streams for larger public art.
Chicago passed a Percent for Art ordinance in 1978, which stipulates 1.3 percent of the cost of constructing and renovation municipal buildings be set aside for public artwork.
And that public art helps drive tourism.
Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park, commonly referred to as the "Bean," is a big draw. The kidney-shaped reflective sphere invites people to take photos and interact with the sculpture, said Wuorenmaa.
A 40-foot-high blue bear that peaks into the window of the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver acts not only as a photo opportunity for tourists and locals but has also served as a great advertisement for the convention center itself, public art supporters say.
The giant Louisville Slugger bat outside of the Louisville Slugger Museum has become iconic and synonymous with Kentucky's largest city.
Under the proposal that passed the council committee in early June, one percent of any city building over $10 million would be set aside for public art for that building or site. One percent of bonding for all other projects would go into a pool for other art public arts around the city.
Councilman Richard Moloney said the city tried to do something similar in the late 1990s. But it never got any traction. By dedicating 1 percent of a $20 million building to public art, that means there could be $200,000 available for public art for that particular building or site, Moloney said.
"I want to see something big that will leave a mark," Moloney said.
Still, spending taxpayer money on public art may be a tough sell.
Councilwoman Angela Evans and Councilman Fred Brown said they supported public art but expressed reservations about dedicating city money to art given the city's tight finances and other expenses.
"My concern is this fund would take priority over something like homelessness," Evans said during the committee meeting.
Brown said he wouldn't support bonding or borrowing for public art projects. But taking money from the general fund each year for public art may mean cuts to other programs.
"Where would you take the $300,000 from?" Brown said. "I'm not going to support increasing the bonding."
Councilwoman Peggy Henson said she supported the idea because the city needs money to maintain its current public art. Henson has two bus stops in her council district that were re-done by a nonprofit arts group but that nonprofit no longer exists.
"We are having a hard time finding money for maintenance," Henson said.
Farmer said after the June 5 meeting that he is open to talking about how the city funds the 1 percent — either through a direct allocation from the general fund or a bond.
"This is the first step to having a consistent funding for public art," Farmer said.
The committee also approved the development of a city-wide public arts master plan and the reconfiguration and restart of the previously created but long-dormant public arts commission.