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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"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."

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Dave Walker