Longform

THE TWO FACES OF ARTBETWEEN THE GODDARD AND JOHNSON ADMINISTRATIONS, PHOENIX'S PUBLIC ART PROGRAM WAS KNOCKED OFF ITS PEDESTAL

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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."

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Dave Walker