Abstract Art Cuts

The town of Gilbert is known nationwide as one of the fastest-growing communities. And locally, as one of the most homogenous.

Recently, the town's leaders solidified their white-bread image by eliminating Gilbert's fledgling public arts program.

Funding for public art in Gilbert has gone from $420,900 to zero. As a result, two members of Gilbert's Art Advisory Board have quit, a world-renowned artist might sue and the board itself has been left without a purpose.

The official word from the mayor on down is that Gilbert's broke, and needs the cash. But behind the scenes, arts advocates are complaining that at least one town councilman voted to dismantle Gilbert's public arts program before it had hung a single piece because he likens public art -- particularly abstract public art -- to communism.

In any case, the move is "a slap in the face" to the arts community, says Jose Benavides, chairman of the Gilbert Arts Advisory Board.

Art fans point out that other cash-strapped cities and towns maintain public art programs in tough times. But it is true that cuts are not unusual. "In challenging times," says Shelley Cohn, who has been executive director of Arizona Commission on the Arts since the 1980s, "it's often more challenging to connect what the value of the arts are to community life."

It's proven quite a challenge in Gilbert.

The brouhaha started earlier this year, when the town's art advisory board recommended Shan Shan Sheng -- a renowned San Francisco artist -- for the town's first project, a $40,000 piece that was to adorn the new community development building. Cut from cold cast glass, the concept from Sheng was a ribbon -- sliced and floating through the air.

The arts advisory board loved the idea, but in a close vote in September, the town council denied funding, citing tight times and beginning a discussion that would eventually eliminate the town's entire public art budget.

After the cuts were made, Councilman Dave Petersen sent an e-mail to arts advisory board member Betsy Harfst, specifying why he didn't approve of Sheng's piece. In part, he wrote, "One of the steps that Karl Marx professed to de-stabilize [sic] a country, making it ripe to be conquered, was to change their culture by changing meaningful art into nothing more than meaningless shapes and colors . . . in my opinion the artwork' [Sheng proposed] has no meaning, no substance, and no inspiration."

In the e-mail, Petersen went on to enumerate -- literally, he lists 45 of them -- the principles of communism, including numbers 22 and 23, which specifically relate to art.

Harfst later resigned from the board -- in part, she says, because of Petersen's attitude toward Sheng's piece and art in general. A second member, Dwight Walth, who is also director of grants services and community initiatives for the Phoenix Arts Commission, has resigned as well.

Petersen, a self-described "meat and potatoes guy," hasn't changed his mind, telling New Times recently that he didn't want to see tax dollars spent on "that big hunk of rusted metal."

The flap was two years in the making. In 2001, "when times were flush," Mayor Steve Berman says, Gilbert's city leaders decided they needed public art. Mostly because there wasn't any. So the arts advisory board was formed, staffed by volunteers. In the summer of 2002, $420,900 was appropriated for the city's "pilot program" for public art, says George Pettit, Gilbert's town manager. The art selected would be housed in the city's three new municipal buildings, beginning with the community development center.

In July, Shan Shan Sheng, a well-known sculptor and painter, presented her ribbon concept to the arts advisory board. She used the notion of a ribbon because Gilbert's community development building is the place where building permits are granted, and after buildings are built, invariably there is a ceremony honoring them; and invariably, it involves the cutting of a ribbon.

As designed, the ribbon's strand would hang from a wall in the building's lobby. Tangled in shades of blue, red, yellow and purple, it would measure roughly 20 feet long. The ribbon's knot, also made of glass but hanging on a wall near a door, would be roughly eight feet by seven feet, Sheng said.

Sheng finds it "funny" that Petersen would equate her art with the art Marx proposed to elevate a communist state. Sheng says "meaningless" art for Petersen means abstract art for everyone else. And abstract art was not allowed in communist regimes. She should know. She grew up in China.

"If they don't know, they shouldn't make any comments," she says of Petersen.

Members of the arts advisory board say they were stunned when Sheng's concept was denied. And worried. They wondered, if funding was denied this project, what about the remaining $380,000 set aside for the two other buildings?

Their worst fears were realized last month, when the town council took the rest of the money, citing Gilbert's increasing population and need for police, fire and court personnel.

"I don't believe they should have taken it all away," says Benavides, the board's chair. "We asked them to leave us a part of the pie. . . . We asked for $60,000 to fund [public art projects in] the other two buildings."

The money formerly set aside for public art will soon be transferred to general funds, where it will go toward alleviating the immediate budget issues the city faces, Pettit says.

It's worth noting that, in lean times in other cities, funding for the arts has been made available elsewhere. The cities of Tempe, Scottsdale, Glendale and Phoenix all have "1 percent programs," where 1 percent of the funds appropriated for capital projects is earmarked for the arts. For example, in Glendale that put about half a million dollars toward the arts last year.

Gilbert has a history of skimping on the arts. In October of 2002, Gilbert's town council rejected an ordinance similar to Tempe's 1 percent program. The Gilbert Chamber of Commerce also opposed the ordinance.

As councilman Petersen explains, people in Gilbert -- at least the people he talks to -- are more concerned with trash pickup than arts funding.

After the council denied Sheng's piece, Petersen says his constituents thanked him for not wasting their money. Sheng said she's considering suing, although she likely doesn't have much of a case, since the project was never a sure thing.

In any case, it looks like the walls in Gilbert will be empty for the foreseeable future.

Benavides, the board's chair, says, his voice weary, that the board will continue to exist. But without any money, he adds, "I'm not sure that we're totally clear what direction we're going to go in."

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