All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1988

Public Funding for the Arts: Diamond or Daub?

Eugenie Dickerson is a free-lance writer who resides in Bellevue, Washington.

There are things that government should never touch—religion, free press, the arts . . . I learned how badly bureaucrats can mangle the last category when I served on an arts board, and because I respect the independence of the American mainstream to sift classical art from con art.

All across the continent, the public questions the picks of tax-funded arts boards.

New York City is the scene of bitter opposition to the sculpture “Tilted Arc.” The 120-foot-long wall was hatched in the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981 out of a Federal art-in-architecture grant. The General Services Administration bought the 73-ton, rusted steel sculpture for $175,000. The government has since decided to search for a more appreciative site for it.

Richard Serra, the sculptor, in turn filed suit, claiming that relocation of his work would violate his free speech fight. Also involved in the suit were breach-of-contract, copyright, and trademark counts.

In August 1987, Senior U.S. District Judge Milton Pollack ruled that relocating “Tilted Arc” doesn’t violate Serra’s right to free speech, since the GSA owns the artwork. The other three counts were also dismissed, because of the government’s sovereign immunity from these claims.

Chicago bought a huge, red-brown metal-work that looks like a woman from one angle and a horse from another. Nobody doubts that the artist had a reputation, but so did P. T. Barnum.

In Tacoma, Washington, one per cent of the cost of new public buildings and remodeling projects was set aside to be spent on public art. As decoration for their new stadium, Tacomans wound up with a string of neon lights in lopsided letters and squiggles for $272,000.

Tacomans raged. They forced the issue onto the ballot and voted 3 to 1 a recommendation that the work be removed. In a reverse type of censorship, the officials claimed the public needed a visual challenge and the thing would stay no matter what the tastes of the public.

But the people really hated the lights. Another drive was undertaken, this one to withdraw the one per cent of capital improvement funds earmarked for the arts. This vote was binding and successful.

The neon lights remain today, but the bureaucrats haven’t money to buy more kitsch. The Tacoma City Council allows Tacoma Dome renters the option of turning off the neon sculpture. Most do.

Elsewhere in Washington, the art picture is more embarrassed than angry. The Legislative Building in the capital, Olympia, sports a mural known as “The Twelve Labors of Hercules.” Raised in 1981, the work has been covered over since 1982 when state representatives declared it obscene. In April 1987, the legislature voted to remove the work.

But this isn’t a painting that can be pulled off a hook and rehung in the back room. This is artwork painted directly onto the wall of the House Chambers. Options are few: “Hercules” may be painted over, peeled off (with major damage to the artwork), or the state may disassemble the wall for relocation. Hobson’s choice.

The artist, Michael Spafford, had another idea. In May 1987, he filed suit to keep the mural in place, regardless of the fact that he had been paid for the work and regardless of public opinion.

Yet “The Twelve Labors of Hercules” had been selected and approved by a peer panel process ahead of painting. Not surprisingly, the art community sympathizes with Spafford.

There’s nothing wrong with the principle of public funding for the arts, believes artist and dealer Laura Velaz of Redmond, Washington, as long as the right persons choose artwork appropriate for the intended site. This was managed nicely in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. “But,” she says, “the Medicis had taste.”

“Hercules” is the sort of disaster that can’t be left up, can’t be taken down, and can’t be photographed and published in full in the newspapers.

My personal education on public funding for the arts began when my community received county money for a writers’ club. I was asked to sit on the board because I had sold a few magazine articles.

Indeed, all of us on the board claimed some personal interest in writing. One said she had done the actual writing for a best-selling book printed with only her husband’s byline. Another wrote a play, unpublished. A third did unpaid editing for her church newsletter. One more was married to a doctor who contributed generously to the arts.

Yet the area arts newsletter (a publicly funded freebie) billed the group as “a specialized panel of experts in Literary Arts.” Purchases of artworks and arts services nationwide are made by the peer review jury system. But for us, gathering artistic peers was more easily said than done.

How did the writers’ board dole out the county “one per cent for the arts” funds, together with club dues? Right away came the post office box. Never mind that for its first four months the box received not one piece of mail. The measure was necessary because “a first-class organization needs its own address,” board members said.

Most of the money was spent on newsletters, postage, coffee, and meeting room rents. But when asked by taxpayers where the money went, the first answer was invariably “to pay speakers who are professional writers.” In truth, less than a third went to direct encouragement of working writers.

And which writers did the club get for speakers? There were two main types: the ex-writer who began teaching when the muse departed, and the Californian who gave readings from his book on how to found a commune.

Successful writers such as Ernest K. Gann turned us down. “Authors should be read and not seen or heard,” he said. And he was right. Writers develop by writing and reading, not by listening to someone else’s experiences.

The very premise for this public expense is wrong. In these days of budget deficits, does the public really want to fund dilettantism?

Public dollars should shy from art not because art is frivolous, but because no small group can set the value of art. In that respect the arts are no different from religion or a free press.

No more should public funds pay for someone’s art opinion than public funds should pay my pastor’s salary or pay this publication for printing my opinion.