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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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.

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Dave Walker