Culture News

Scottsdale Public Art Presents Master Plan, Discusses Separation from the Scottsdale Cultural Council

More than 80 artists and community members gathered at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts last week for a town hall meeting to discuss how public arts are managed in the city.

The stakes were high at the get-together, which was hosted by Scottsdale Public Art and a task force established in fall 2011 to solidify a "master plan" for the program's future.

Public art consultant Jerry Allen, who has been gathering data, researching, and analyzing Scottsdale's public art program since 2010, presented his 36 recommendations from the 60-plus-page master plan. In his presentation, Allen said that the master plan recommends the public art program should host an annual participatory public art festival in Scottsdale, and that it "should explore . . . incorporation as a separate nonprofit independent of the Cultural Council."

Audience questions orbited around the proposed separation, which would unhitch the program financially from the Cultural Council. Questions included: What are the alternatives? How long would it take? Is a leadership shake-up possible? How might donors react?

Allen and the five member of the task force onstage said they wouldn't have these answers until after the final draft is completed this summer.

Scottsdale Public Art's master-planning process began in summer of 2010, when it formed an advisory committee to establish a solid plan for the future of the program. In 2011, the group held a series of community outreach events called Cafe Conversations. These led to Allen's 30 preliminary recommendations, which he presented to the community on June 1, 2011.

Included in Allen's initial presentation was a recommendation that Scottsdale Public Art become an independent nonprofit -- mostly so the program could be financially independent.

The Cultural Council, which includes Scottsdale Public Art, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), gets nearly half of its funding from a contract with the city of Scottsdale -- to the tune of $4.1 million. About $800,000 goes toward funding the public art program, and Scottsdale Public Art cannot raise outside funds unless approved by the council.

Project manager Jana Weldon says this funding system is too "traditional" at a time when public arts programs need to evolve to survive. Both the separation and annual festival recommendations are rooted in an attempt to move past cities' paying for large pieces of art, toward more diverse projects that draw larger crowds (and private donors).

"It's a field that has been changing [and] is still changing," she said during Wednesday's meeting, citing Glow Festival in Santa Monica as a model. "Scottsdale is used to leading [in public art], and the citizens have kind of come to expect that."

But developing concrete plans for Scottsdale Public Art has been stalled by what Weldon describes as a "political maelstrom" in recent memory.

Tensions grew between SCC President Bill Banchs and SPA President Valerie Vadala Homer in late summer 2011. Banchs shot down a Piper Trust grant for SPA and accused Homer of disloyalty in e-mails; Homer sought whistle-blower status, saying her job no longer felt safe.

Tempers cooled when the original advisory committee let a new Cultural Council-formed Master Plan Task Force take over that fall.

That group, formed with reps from Scottsdale Cultural Council, Scottsdale Public Art, and city of Scottsdale, needed to be caught up on Allen's research, Homer says, which slowed the planning process down several months. Since then, Allen and the public art committee have listened to Task Force requests -- to soften language surrounding the "separation," for example -- and now she says the SCC seems to feel more included and on board.

But Homer expects the controversy to continue.

"[The meeting] confirms that we have listened to the community, and it's what the community supports, and that we haven't gone off the deep end," she said. "I don't think that [controversy] has been resolved in the public yet."

According to Allen, the timetable for the master plan and the potential separation of the public art program from the council partly depends on outside factors, namely that the City must notify SCC a year in advance before changing their contract. (City Council would have to change the contract to divvy up that $4 million spending between two organizations.)

"The city is obviously a major player in this," Allen said.

So, the major recommendations Allen laid out at the town hall meeting are at least a year away. He says the presentation was more like his "final rough draft," and that after this last round of public feedback, he will make the final draft and present it to City Council and the SCC Board of Trustees in June or July.

It will be his sixth version of the SPA master plan and, hopefully, the last. "This started out as a 12-month project, and it's now in its 34th month," Allen said. "I must say, the people of Scottsdale believe in public process."

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