By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
But a postpots massacre was largely averted because of some truly diplomatic give-and-take with the city council, orchestrated by veteran arts commission member Rich Goldsmith. The commission was saved. The Arizona-artists-only mandate (which, extended to its illogical extreme, would have opened up a lot of library shelf space by booting out all that fancy crap written by out-of-staters) was diminished to a mere philosophical guideline. But funding for public art was still in big trouble, and vast political damage had been done.
If the arts commission staffers who had done what seemed like their level best to involve the community felt unjustly exposed to public ridicule, the mayor and city council felt doubly so.
"The arts commission's first public statement was, 'The city council approved the budget for the pots,'" recalls Mayor Johnson. "We approved the budget, but we had no idea what the art looked like! And we had been told over and over again that we weren't supposed to approve the art!
"Everyone said up front, 'You need to keep a separation between politics, government and the design of artwork.' Everyone said that until the day the controversy hit, and the day the controversy hit, everyone, including people on the arts staff and arts commission, immediately kind of pointed in our direction."
"The lesson of politics," says arts commissioner Goldsmith, "is that politicians don't like surprises. They believe they were surprised by the pots."
Today, two years down the parkway, the highest-profile city officials have taken steps to ensure they won't be surprised again. In the process, they have dramatically revised the makeup of the Phoenix Arts Commission staff, its budget for public-art spending--even the method by which art is created.
Most of the former arts commission staffers are reluctant to talk for the record about their departures. Thanks to the splashy write-ups given their former program, several are embarking on consulting careers that may bring them back in contact with city officials.
Marie Navarre, an artist now teaching at Mesa Community College and at Arizona State University, left last year after three and a half years on the staff. "I left for two primary reasons," she says. "One, I wanted to pursue my own work as an artist. Two, I felt like we had gotten to the point where it was becoming impossible to do any more work. There was such a tremendous slowdown, and we were not getting any indication from the City Manager's Office that there was support for the program." A letter late last spring to the city council from Mayor Johnson and city councilmember Kathy Dubs, calling for arts cuts and applauding the deemphasis of the staff's role in selection of public art, cast a pall over the staff and reportedly accelerated r‚sum‚-circulation efforts by arts commission staffers.
Navarre says, "The visionary and innovative spirit of the commission had been squashed."
Among the departed are: ù Deborah Whitehurst, the commission's director for seven years, who left last September to work with the nonprofit Arizona Community Foundation, which administers endowments. She also has hung out her shingle as a public-art consultant, and has become a popular speaker at arts-administration conventions. Her last words to the commission, duly recorded in the minutes of the meeting, were: "You all need to hold the ideal of the arts as a critical part of the way a great city develops; advocate for it; work for it. There are many people out there who don't believe it."
ù Gretchen Freeman, public-art manager, left to spend more time with her children. She is also pursuing consulting opportunities.
ù Pat Dowd, arts-in-education coordinator, left to pursue her Ph.D.
"I think Deborah was a loss," says Mayor Johnson. "I think Deborah did a good job.
"I hate to lose [the others]. I think there are other people we can find who are qualified and who can do a good job. The only thing I can say about the people who are leaving is that I thought they did a good job. That doesn't mean that there weren't times where there were disagreements, where I thought we could've done a better job. There isn't a staff person in the city that I wouldn't make that statement about."
The money follows
The commission's budget for public art--the Art Plan--has dropped from a high of $4,739,000 in fiscal 1989-1990 to $1,377,000 for the current fiscal year.
The decrease, explains city officialdom, is linked to the bad economy in recent years. And except for the huge new City Hall that somehow got built, it's true: There's been a big decrease in spending on capital improvements, and a corresponding dive in the 1 percent add-on for arts. Most of the cultural enhancements included in the big, 88 bond program have also been delayed.
The same economic slowdown gets the blame/credit for staff reductions at the arts commission. In the boom days, the office had 12 full-time staffers. These days, there are 8.5. All of the disappeared were in public art--actually classified as temporary positions, according to the City Manager's Office--and funded by percent-for-arts money. Which puts the arts commission's staff drop, temporary or otherwise, at nearly 30 percent. According to the city's Budget and Research Department, the staff reduction at the Phoenix Police Department over the past couple of lean years has been 1.7 percent. According to the mayor, no "sworn personnel" (read: armed) positions have been eliminated at the PPD, meaning the reduction encompassed file clerks and their ilk. Meanwhile, parks and rec took a 2.5 percent hit. Citywide, the staff reduction was held to 2.9 percent. City bean counters argue that comparing capital-improvement dollars with general-fund dollars is apples-and-oranges accounting. The public-art program, like all of the other agencies linked to capital-improvement money, was designed to ebb and flow. Take, for example, the ebb over at the streets department, which has absorbed a 23 percent "staffing impact" hit--88 "positions eliminated due to workload cutback" since around the turn of the decade, according to Budget and Research. Engineering and Architectural Services is down 46 percent from the days of the everexpanding city; the finance division of the real estate acquisitions department has bled 96 percent--decimated from 9.36 positions to .36.