Critical mass
Last July, Newsweek said, "Phoenix is on the cutting edge of the movement to meld art and public works." A month later, the New York Times added, "Phoenix has shown that our capacity for invention is far from all used up." In October, the Chicago Tribune noted that "painstaking efforts at municipal reform and innovation" have made Phoenix "the 1990s' City That Works."

The catalyst for all three articles was the work of the Phoenix Arts Commission. The reviews together were the single greatest burst of positive national publicity Phoenix had received in recent memory. For once, the Eastern Media Elite had noticed Phoenix for something other than its loony-tunes politics and land fraud.

Bill Hardin, a local attorney and arts commission member, says that kind of publicity helps America "overcome the inchoate sense that Phoenix is a second-tier place to live." It's helpful, economic-developmentwise, "that a guy in New York or Los Angeles can pick up a paper and read that Phoenix is culturally progressive and culturally important," Hardin adds.

And who could argue? But this art-appreciation stuff gets tricky. To many local residents, the arts commission has only created controversy. This was the gang, after all, that gave us the infamous Squaw Peak Pots, that daffy urnware collection tacked on to the north-south parkway through central Phoenix.

To Big Media, though, the "dynamic" and "enlightened" commission, led by director Deborah Whitehurst, created a new chapter in American art by turning "public art into something worthy of the legendary WPA"--the Depression-era employment agency that commissioned artists and writers to create for the public good.

This arts commission's big innovation, in its admirers' eyes, has been its combining of artists and engineers at the design stages of public projects, including freeways, parks, warehouses and bridges.

"Perhaps the most striking example," gushed Newsweek's Strycker McGuire, "is a highway overpass." That would be the big hunk of gray concrete at Thomas Road and the Squaw Peak Parkway, where artist Marilyn Zwak designed support columns to resemble reptiles, then cajoled nearby residents to press their own tchotchkes into adobe panels hung on the structure's walls.

The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp was equally bedazzled by the artist-engineer partnership evident in the Phoenix Solid Waste Management Center, a garbage-transfer warehouse and recycling center on the southwest side. "With its newest public art project," glowed Muschamp of the New Age dump, "the program has moved out of the realm of metaphor and begun to alter reality," whatever that means.

Gail Goldman, public-art coordinator for San Diego's arts and culture commission, says, "Those articles . . . they're the envy of the entire public-art field. We all sort of said, 'Wow, wouldn't it be nice?'" She adds that arts officials everywhere "I'm sure replaced 'Phoenix' and 'Deborah Whitehurst' with their city and their name."

As the smoochy reviews poured in, however, Phoenix itself was gearing up to replace Deborah Whitehurst. The arts commission that created the artwork and public works that sparked all the fine notices has essentially disintegrated.

The explanations for the commission's downfall vary from source to source.
Managers of the city government say that the economic downturn of two years ago halted most new building, the funding engine to which the arts commission's most visible and successful program--public art--is hitched.

Elected officials opine that the commission's decline is more or less "right-sizing," an extravagant department trimmed to incorporate the artistic vision of more "community members" and fewer fine-arts professionals.

Artsy types blame a bureaucratic conspiracy fomented by bottom-liners out to kill culture.

Conspiracy theorists even see pregubernatorial-primary jockeying.
Their scenario: It's the populist, family-man gubernatorial candidate-to-be (Paul Johnson) gutting the highbrow programs installed by his egghead predecessor (Terry Goddard, also a candidate for governor).

Whatever the cause, the effect on the Phoenix Arts Commission--and the city's hot-list public-art program--has been devastating. At least a half-dozen key staffers, including Whitehurst, the commission's founding director, have left the department in the last year. Phoenix's spending on public art has plummeted from a high of almost $3 million in 1990 to less than $800,000 just three years later. And, perhaps worst of all, the commission's autonomy from political meddling has apparently disappeared.

For, as 1994 dawned, Phoenix's mayor went public with his own peculiar vision for a brand-new public-art piece. Paul Johnson wants a sculpture made from the melted-down guns that are being gathered by the city. It will be a memorial to victims of street violence.

It seems like an innocent-enough suggestion. But the gun-statue idea--already dubbed "silly" by several city councilmembers--is proof that Phoenix's public-art program today isn't the one that caught the fancies of Newsweek and the New York Times.

In fact, the arts commission's founding philosophy was crafted to avoid the kind of eastern European aesthetic that results in grim memorials and busts of dead guys. In the trade, it's called "plop art"--statues and memorials dropped in city parks or near the front steps of civic buildings.  

Ironically, the story of the mayor's latest artistic inspiration plopped into the news almost two years to the day after the debut of the Squaw Peak Pots. Johnson had fanned that controversy by swinging a sledgehammer over a mock pot for a photo opportunity on the steps of the old City Hall. But he didn't break that pot. It sits in the corner of Johnson's office in the new City Hall, a reminder, he says, of just exactly where the public-art buck stops.

Because of the pots controversy, the arts commission has remained much less intact than Johnson's ceramic Post-it note. You remember the pots controversy: freeway abatement program. Massachusetts artist. Half a million bucks. Pots.

They're still out there, all 35 of them, from Osborn to Glendale Avenue, on both sides of the road, on and over the walls decorating neighborhoods that still seethe about the freeway's intrusion and the added indignity of the cheesy artwork. "Wall Cycle to Ocotillo" is the exact title. "Public Art From Hell" is the subtitle.

The story of how the arts commission got from the high-minded idealism of its founding, to oversight on the Pots from Hell, to darling of the national media, to whatever state it's in now, begins in 1984. Phoenix was in midboom. Terry Goddard had just been elected mayor. Charles Barkley still had hair. Going public

The city was flush when the Phoenix Arts Commission was born. Mayor Goddard wanted a better way to distribute the city's supply of tax-generated cultural cash. At the time, Phoenix was the only city of any comparable size without an arts council. Though a handful of major arts institutions had been getting support from City Hall, the time had come to widen the scope of Phoenix's cultural beneficence.

Goddard asked local attorney/arts maven Edward "Bud" Jacobson to form a study group. Jacobson's committee met for a year, listened to guest speakers, studied what other cities had done and weighed Phoenix's needs. Literally hundreds of people participated, from all walks.

A year later, the group produced a document, the 1990 Plan, outlining an expanded grant-distribution program and a recommendation that the city pursue a percent-for-arts ordinance. Trendy around the country at the time, such ordinances typically mandated that 1 percent of the budget of any new building project be reserved for an arts-related component. The beauty part of Phoenix's percent-for-the-arts ordinance, passed in 1986, is that it isn't limited to just buildings. The percent rule applies to all capital additions, including streets and sewers, and not just to four-wall bureaucrat boxes.

The not-so-beauteous part is that the ordinance reads "up to 1 percent." As it turns out, Phoenix has never spent a full 1 percent of the capital-improvement budget on art; the annual average over the past several years is closer to half of 1 percent.

Jacobson's study group also recommended the formation of the Phoenix Arts Commission, made up of volunteer commissioners appointed by the mayor and the city council. Paid city staffers were to run the office.

The public-art selection process was laid down at this stage, as well: Neither commissioners nor staff actually pick the art or the artists. Independent panels typically get that first, all-important job, and then pass their decision along for approval by the whole commission. In many cases, the first panel simply picks an artist, who then is expected to develop a concept for later approval up the line. In the best cases, the artist is selected in time to join the design team of the project getting the art. Even on seemingly humdrum infrastructure improvements.

There would be checks. There would be balances. But politicians generally would not be allowed near the front end of the creative process. They'd just approve the budget and wait around to see what the right-brainers come up with.

"You use the creativity of the people who know this stuff best to give you options," says Goddard. "Then, if it's an option that flies in the face of public sensitivity, then you can use your discretion as an elected official.

"What you want to do is have a process that opens up the maximum amount of creativity."
When it came time for the city council to vote the commission to life, most of the hundreds of citizens who participated in the study process showed up to watch. A few of them became the first commission. Deborah Whitehurst became the first staff director. "It was really a very peppy thing," says Jacobson. "We were making news." From the beginning, the commission was also encouraged to think big. In the words of several of its members, the Phoenix Arts Commission's biggest job was to "change the way the city looks."  

Picking your spots
Job One toward the goal of changing the way the city looks was to contract William Morrish and Catherine Brown, of the Design Center for American Urban Landscape, to take a look at the town. The document produced by the consultants (Public Art Plan for Phoenix: Ideas and Visions) set the theme for the arts commission's greatest breakthrough: art's insinuation into the infrastructure of the still-growing city.

Among the Valley's "urban ingredients" studied were the local geography, roads, airports, pedestrian walkways, canals, landmarks and parks. Morrish and Brown identified points of opportunity within each of those "ingredients." "It's a very creative piece of work," says Goddard today of the Morrish-Brown study, "interpreting our own place for us, in a way we all see it intrinsically but had not really verbalized."

The next stop on the arts-commission time line was 1988, the year city voters passed a $1.1 billion bond issue that was to pay for all kinds of cultural improvements, including a new central library, an upgraded art museum and new downtown museums for science and history. Included, as well, in the bond issue was a ton more money for other, less edifying capital improvements, such as streets and sewers, and the corresponding 1 percent of that ton for art. "It was," Deborah Whitehurst says, "a vote for building a great city."

Ignorance was bliss
During its infancy, the Phoenix Arts Commission was allowed to work in splendid isolation. "For the first several years," says Rich Goldsmith, an attorney and longtime commission member, "we were basically ignored." Ignored, yes. Idle, no. Much public art--including all of the work recently reviewed so positively in Newsweek, the New York Times and elsewhere--was conceived during those years out of the commission's offices at Fourth Avenue and Roosevelt.

It includes the Thomas Road overpass, Central Avenue's classy streetscape, Sunnyslope's zany tree guards, various items in pocket parks, the erector-set rainbow east of Herberger Theater Center and several attempts at airport-terminal adornment.

Other good works range from the highest-tech, neon-and-video sculpture pieces inside the entrance of America West Arena to the pretech ecoliths of the City Boundary Project in Papago Park.

The commission's high mark, the Solid Waste Management Center, hit the drawing board as the 27th Avenue landfill approached capacity. As the dump filled up, the city was faced with the costly prospect of having its garbage hauled to a landfill 20 miles north of downtown. With the idea of reducing the amount of long-haul trash (via sorting, a process that could also accommodate recycling), a transfer facility was proposed.

What city Public Works Director Ron Jensen needed, basically, was a big warehouse with garage doors at both ends. What was delivered to him, according to most analysts, was something bordering on fine art. "The concept of solid-waste facility as 'destination' was Ron's idea," says Deborah Whitehurst. "He had it in mind from the beginning." Sculptors Linnea Glatt and Michael Singer, residents of Texas and Vermont, respectively, were enlisted by the commission to help Jensen's engineers design the building. "The result is an attractive union of function and art," said Newsweek. "A building that . . . will process much of the city's garbage beckons visitors with such amenities as a public amphitheatre, a community meeting room and a library. This must be the most theatrical dump in the country." Urn, urn, urn

Strictly speaking, the idea for the Squaw Peak Pots did not gurgle up from the Phoenix Arts Commission.

The commission was asked to retrofit a little something artistic onto the parkway, itself a retrofit through several established neighborhoods. It was freeway mitigation, funded with money from the freeway-construction budget for neighborhoods that were not mitigable.

After the usual panel-review process, Mags Harries, working out of a vaguely communistic-sounding outfit named the Harries/Heder Collaborative in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was picked to handle the project.

Neighborhood workshops were arranged. Some 6,000 direct-mail pieces went out to homes and businesses in the shadow of the parkway. The workshops were advertised in the daily newspapers. Folks who had previously expressed some interest in parkway issues got personal phone calls.

Fifteen people showed up.
Six months later, comrade Harries debuted her vision to the planning and streets departments and other professionally interested parties. Two months after that, a presentation was made to the parkway's neighbors. A few more than 100 showed up, and, after Harries' slide show, the agenda collapsed. "It became a forum for people to talk about their anger over the freeway," says someone who was present.  

In late 1991, the commission's PR person, who might have eased some of the coming pots-related sticker shock, was transferred to another department.

In early 1992, the pots were installed, and, in the words of Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, "the art hit the fan." Judging from the newspaper columnists and talk-radio hosts who leaped on the story, neighborhood reaction to the pots was overwhelmingly negative.

Though there seems to be increased acceptance of the artwork today, city councilmembers say the public reaction expressed to their receptionists was as bad as anything they had recently known. The stress level in the arts-commission office became "unbearable," says Pat Dowd, then coordinator for arts-in-education programming. "I answered the phone one evening at five til 5," she says, "and this person started screaming, 'I want to know who hired you, so I can have you fired!'"

Within days of the press first taking notice of the pots, the mayor had done his bit with the mock pot. He had also memo'd the city manager to review the whole artsy-fartsy mess. City Manager Frank Fairbanks responded with characteristic efficiency, delivering a seven-page, single-spaced memo outlining alterations in the city's public-art program.

Compounding the pots crisis was the state of the economy, which had finally caught up with the city's much-heralded professional-management machine. Property values dropped. Real estate taxes dropped. For the first time in Phoenix's century-plus of drafting operating budgets, the coming fiscal year's was going to be smaller than the current year's. Downsizing talk filled the air. Cop-cutting was considered. Firefighter layoffs was a possibility.

"The cost of that art could have paid for 13 police officers," barked police union official Mike Petchel to that noted arts journal the National Enquirer. "The message this artwork sends to the public is one of frivolous expenditure of taxpayers' money during tough economic times."
The Fairbanks memo was drafted in the same vein, calling for an 80 percent reduction in percent-for-art spending, cuts in the arts commission budget and a make-work quota system to funnel most artwork commissions to Arizona artists.

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."

Staff defection
"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 rsum-circulation efforts by arts commission staffers.  

Navarre says, "The visionary and innovative spirit of the commission had been squashed."

Among the departed are: 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."

Gretchen Freeman, public-art manager, left to spend more time with her children. She is also pursuing consulting opportunities.

Nina Dunbar, also a member of public-art staff, departed to become a consultant, and is working with developers in Vancouver.

Sharon Southerland and Rob Shultz, a public-arts worker and staff registrar, respectively, left because their positions were eliminated.

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.

Perhaps the most telling column of figures in the arts commission files charts the actual percentage of available percent-for-art money that is spent. These figures have plummeted in the past couple of years, from a high of almost 90 percent in 1990-1991 to the all-time low of 16.75 percent in 1991-1992. That year, remembered as the fiscal year of the parkway pots, only $688,000 of the more than $4 million available for public art was used.

As the budget for public art has dropped, the true dollars-spent figure has dropped even further. According to Mark Leonard, acting director of the arts commission, more than $8 million made available under the percent-for-arts program has gone unspent over the years--an amazing figure, when you consider that all the percentage-for-arts expenditures since 1988 add up to only $7.2 million.

In other words, the city has spent less than half of what it could have spent.
Leonard, who is on loan to the commission from the city's Budget and Research Department, says the unspent millions--actually unissued bond money--are "recoverable" for future arts projects. The mayor says: "It's unfortunate that some people believe the funding issue was connected to the pot debate. The funding issue was connected to the fact that we went through our worst budget, literally, in the city's history.  

"We made cuts in every single department the city has. Even the police department was held to a minimum growth. You just can't justify making cuts in those areas while allowing other areas to continue on unbridled. So what we did was put the brakes on everybody." Squashed spirits

When it comes to the arts commission, the official catch phrase around City Hall these days is "more community involvement." As in: "The Arts Commission is doing a much better job of ensuring that the community is brought in on the process" of public art, Johnson says. And: "There's been a lot of improvement in the process, trying to get the community more involved," says Marsha Wallace of the City Manager's Office. "There's definitely more connection, more discussion."

Such talk vexes Deborah Whitehurst, ex of the arts commission. "Community involvement was always there," she says. "The arts commission was the community."

Artist-selection panels were composed of citizens, too, she says. The public meetings called to discuss artwork were held out in the "community." "I don't think there's been any change, accept in the way you define 'community,'" says Whitehurst. "You have more people representing districts--city council people--saying, 'This is what I want in my district.'

"There's nothing wrong with that; it's just different."
Bill Hardin says the arts commissioners have worked hard to increase the arts commission's profile--with both the public and the Powers That Be. The result, he says, is an increased PR profile for commission projects, and improved art appreciation among key political players.

"I think we thought our processes were more open than people perceived they were," says Hardin. "We were running public processes that people who ultimately decided they had a position didn't participate in. Now we're better at letting people know."
Including, Hardin says, the occupants of City Hall, both permanent and transient. The arts commission, which once answered to a hierarchy of administrators at the Parks, Recreation and Library Department, was transferred in the wake of the pots crisis to more direct supervision by the City Manager's Office. "There's no question that the City Manager's Office is much more deeply involved on a day-to-day basis than it was when I first joined the commission," he says. "There was a lot of concern about it at first. I shared it at first, that what would result out of that would politicize the process."

It hasn't, he says.
It has, say others.
Mayor Johnson "doesn't like to think that there's a panel of people from the community who are making these decisions about public art for the whole city," says downtown artist and former arts commissioner Beatrice Moore. "He says he wants 'the community' to be more involved. I ultimately think he wants the opposite. He wants the council and himself to have more control over the decision-making process."

Gimme that brush!
Several examples of public artwork recently placed in the production hopper emit the aroma of memorial pork. However well-intentioned the originators of these projects may be, the projects, on paper, look a lot like "plop art." A civil rights memorial is programmed for Eastlake Park at 16th Street and Jefferson. A Cesar Chvez memorial is planned for a park on the far-southwest side. "We look at it as a sign of success, that councilmembers want projects in their districts," says arts commissioner Rich Goldsmith, "as opposed to not wanting them. It's important to the health of the commission to have leaders in the community for us." Adds Bill Hardin, chair of the commission's Art in Public Places committee: "There are purists who say, 'Gee, the politicians should stay completely out of the process.' But if the mayor has an idea, I don't see why we shouldn't listen to him, as we would listen to anybody's idea. It shouldn't be taken to mean that whatever nutty idea a politician has, we should do it." The latest complete work of Phoenix public art currently hangs in the lobby of the new City Hall. It is a mural, by Apache Junction artist Joel Coplin, that depicts the city's history from left to right across a huge canvas. The figures in the painting range from prehistoric natives to babes in convertibles to farm hands to a lean, young politico patiently fielding questions from constituents.

The $50,000 mural was Paul Johnson's idea. According to the artist, the prominent politico in the mural is not Paul Johnson. Not entirely, at least. (Beatrice Moore claims she sees Paul Johnson in the mural in three different places.) "I tried for an archetype," says Coplin, "a young-politician kind of thing, somewhere between Bruce Babbitt, Terry Goddard and Paul Johnson."  

From the beginning, the mural commission was designated for Arizona artists only. Coplin, collaborating with a staffer from the Arizona Historical Foundation, was panel-picked for the project from a field of more than 60 applicants.

After Coplin was approved for the project by the city council, a bizarre episode ensued in which a disgruntled muralist who didn't get the job actually forced the art-spooked council into a second vote. Coplin won again, and spent two months doing the actual brushwork--but not before six months of preliminary legwork. Coplin says he previewed a sketch of the mural to 14 different constituencies. City councilmembers were approached individually for advance peeks. Input was sought. Input was given. Councilman Salomon Leija suggested revisions that ultimately resulted in the insertion of more brown faces into Coplin's interpretation of Phoenix history. Elsewhere in the piece, the role of the lone conquistador was considerably diminished at the behest of other previewers.

"History is a relative thing," says Coplin, who salted the canvas with several sly gags, including an homage to the Squaw Peak Pots. "It depends on what your perspective is, and what side of the fence you were viewing it from. 'Christopher Columbus discovered America.' That's very insulting to Native Americans, right?

"I included a conquistador to begin with. The idea of conquistadors having any heroic stature in the Southwest is objectionable to the Chicano community. "I think I gave him a little too much relevance [in the sketch]. You could see him well. Some people voiced the opinion that that looked like what all muralists have done, and that is, 'The great and conquering conquistadors' and the idea that, 'Isn't this wonderful?'"
The conquistador in the finished painting is depicted in silhouette, almost completely obscured by another figure. No problem, says Coplin. "In fact, it is public art. That is a definition that includes the public.

"I'm willing to listen to people and hear what their concerns are and work within that framework.

"The people at the Phoenix Arts Commission kept saying to me, 'How do you feel? Do you feel that your work is being compromised? Do you have a problem with this?' They were willing to back me 100 percent. "But I was willing to work on those parameters."
No problem, says arts commissioner Goldsmith. "The mural, because it was going to be in City Hall, was going to be a political concern to the occupants of that building," he says. "The good artists, the ones who want to do public art, realize the public context of the art we're doing. They're better prepared than we are to deal with that!"

Problem, says Terry Goddard. "There was some talk early on of having each district councilperson have his own arts program," remembers Goddard of the commission's formative period. "I convinced them that that's the last thing they want to be. They'd end up arguing about colors and sculpture styles. They'd be overwhelmed by something they know nothing about. "I don't think they should ever be involved on the front end. . . .

"I don't think anybody looks at the city council for creativity on items of public beautification. I'm afraid that's where we're headed."

No. 1 with a bullet
The mayor hopes to form a coalition of parties to work together on his MASK (Melting Arms, Saving Kids) sculpture idea, including the arts commission, Mothers Against Gangs and the Phoenix Suns (perhaps to contribute their own personal sidearms to the premeltdown pile).

Then, the idea is to snag the artwork dollars from a "designated revenue source"--by linking it to a capital-improvement project already under way--and get the thing done.

"It doesn't matter to me what piece they select," Johnson says. "It doesn't matter to me what it looks like. What matters to me is that it becomes a memorial to kids and individuals who've died by violence that's taking place on our streets."
Downtown artist and former arts commissioner Beatrice Moore doesn't buy it. "I think it's grandstanding," she says. "His support of the arts has been so small. He uses arts when he can to his advantage. But it's been a fight with him the whole way, as far as I'm concerned."

Moore and ASU photography professor Mark Klett were the only two arts commissioners who were denied reappointment last year after requesting it.

Both had been outspoken critics of City Hall's efforts to curb the commission. (Moore: "I get a little bit tired, because I'm an artist, of people not considering me part of 'the community.'") Klett is remembered for testily debating a deputy city manager on Channel 8's Horizon show at the hottest moment of the postpots budget conflagration.  

"With any politician, there's a certain educational process you have to go through," says Moore. "With Johnson . . . I don't think he understands the economic-development importance of the arts, even though it's been hit home to him again and again."
Johnson argues that he does, too, understand the value of national column inches devoted to his arts commission. "Anytime you get national notoriety, there's a benefit in that it's just a pride builder for the community," he says. "There may be other economic impact, as well. It may be hard to gauge."

Goddard, continues artist Moore, "was at least willing to stick his neck out and take an unpopular approach to something. Johnson is a lot more cautious. He has more of a tendency to go which way the wind is blowing. Support for the arts needs to go beyond grandstanding for the national press over the fact that he may be running for governor or some other office."

Could the Squaw Peak Pots become a gubernatorial campaign issue once Johnson declares for the race that Goddard has already reentered?

"What I will credit Terry on is that Terry really did come up with the percent-for-the-arts program," says Johnson. "In that, I think he brought benefit to the community. "To me, it's kind of an issue of priority. With me, my highest priority is kids. But I like art. Terry's highest priority is art. I don't think it means he dislikes kids, but in terms of where I place my priorities on the council, my programs revolve around kids. My favorite programs in funding for the arts are the portions that go to schools, for the kids, the programs that get kids actively involved in the arts."
If the arts commission were to become a campaign issue, Goddard says he'd be "proud" of his affiliation with Phoenix's art-in-infrastructure achievements.

It's "an example of government doing its job with an extra bit of flair," he says. "A public building needs to have as many uses as you can possibly give it. To make it just an office building, or just a warehouse, or just a fire station, that misses the point. "A building with one purpose is a terrible waste."

Goddard is quick to add one other note. "I had zero to do with the pots," he says. "I'm not a big fan. When you consider what it did to the overall concept of a citizen-involved arts program, I don't think it was worth it."

The crystal ball
The near future of the public-art program, particularly the kind of artist-meets-engineer projects for which the commission continues to generate media plaudits, appears bright. A 300-foot pedestrian overpass on the Dreamy Draw--a design aided by artist Vicki Scuri that "has already won awards," according to Deborah Whitehurst--comes on-line just as soon as the Squaw Peak Parkway gets punched through to Shea Boulevard. That project dates to 1989. A canal-beautification pilot project for Mayor Johnson's neighborhood, the Sunnyslope area, is also proceeding. It got started a couple of years ago. A memorial to public servants who died in the line of duty, planned for the front plaza of the new City Hall, was approved by a selection panel made up of reps from the police and fire unions, among others.

The piece, which is partially funded by the police and fire unions, supposedly is the product of latter-day arts commission "community involvement" efforts, and could be viewed as a harbinger of the public-art future. Designed by downtown artist Otto Rigan, the memorial is currently nearing completion, and people who know what they're talking about say the memorial will not be hokey or cornball, but rather something more like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.--a wildly controversial work at the time of its debut that would've been bombed back into the Stone Age had its fate ridden on the first wave of public opinion.

If there ever was a chance for the panel-selection process to go wrong--stacked as this panel was with interested parties--it was here. "It's not a statue of a police officer or a firefighter," says Mayor Johnson, "though I think it will make the right type of statement for those officers and staff that we have lost in the line of duty."

Despite the lone hopeful note, there remains considerable concern, among artists, art lovers and arts commissioners past and present, for the long-term aesthetic health of local public art. Will the arts commission regress into producing "plop art" for whoever heads the local politburo at any particular moment?  

Or will the public-art division retool and begin again, as the economy improves, to throw artists and engineers together at drawing boards, in the collective endeavor of building a great city? "Everybody I talk to loves the idea of getting the artist on the design team upfront," says Marsha Wallace of the City Manager's Office. "And that seems to be a win-win, as opposed to you have a building built and then you add something.

"That's been our huge success. That's what we're known for all over the country."
Citing the canal project and a couple of streetscape jobs, arts commissioner Bill Hardin points out that most of this year's art plan is devoted to infrastructure works. But, he notes, future infrastructure work is "only really doable effectively if you've got a staff that's committed to it and knows what they're doing."

Late last week, the latest five-year "wish list" of capital-improvement ideas from various departments around the city made its way to the arts commission.

In the old days, the arrival of the document and the arts commission's staff's first look into the city's future "was an enormously exciting process," says Whitehurst, "the central creative process of the entire program.

"It was almost like looking into a crystal ball."
Whitehurst has yet to be replaced. The selection process for the position continues, with a goal of hiring a new director this spring.

The Phoenix Arts Commission has accomplished much more than even its foresighted creators envisioned.

An ambitious arts-in-the-schools program has given some 90,000 schoolkids direct exposure to professional artists. A program was launched to encourage businesses to spend on the arts. The commission's grants program has provided cash and marketing help to hundreds of arts groups of all sizes. Dedicated and hardworking staffers remain in place in those sections of the arts commission. But the public-arts staff is now gazing into the future of other locales.

Almost fortuitously, recurring natural disasters around the country (hurricanes, river floods, earthquakes, etc.) have provided for lots of infrastructure-rebuilding opportunities. The departed arts commission staffers who made their reputation on a garbage-transfer building, under a freeway overpass--and, yes, while tossing some oversize pots--are in great demand as consultants and guest speakers around the country.

"I'm disappointed and saddened that something really good has been deflated," says Terry Goddard. "But we've done a blueprint. We've written the plan. And it's a plan that worked.

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