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State public-art fund faces budget ax 

Colorado's premier taxpayer-supported program dedicated to creating public art is once again under scrutiny from conservative state lawmakers who are considering eliminating the art fund to pay for the upkeep of state buildings.

Rep. Joyce Lawrence (R-Pueblo) and state Sen. Dave Owen (R-Greeley) are considering legislation that would eliminate the 20-year-old, state-run Percent for the Arts program, which has raised more than $3.5 million for art projects in the last five years.

Under the program, 1 percent of the cost of building or renovating any state facility must go toward the purchase or creation of public, outdoor art near the facility.

Owen and Lawrence raised the prospect of slashing the program in a meeting of the joint meeting of the budget and capital-development committees last month as lawmakers considered ways to fund state maintenance projects.

Though the plans are preliminary, the suggestion has already raised the hackles of some in the local art community, who hope to nip the idea in the bud.

"This is the only real solid program in the state of Colorado for funding public art," said Eve Tilley, president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council. "This 1 percent has produced some incredible pieces of public art."

Likewise, John Dandurand, executive director of the Colorado Arts Consortium, a statewide group that advocates for arts issues, said the arts community will likely rally behind the Percent for the Arts program.

"Public art is what makes the building both useful and beautiful," said Dandurand. "It's not all about utilitarian spaces, but also about having spaces appeal to human beings' senses."

Though lawmakers have tried to kill the program in the past, the arts community is particularly worried this time, Dandurand said, because of the new Republican leadership in the statehouse.

In the past, legislative efforts to cut the program were stymied by veto threat from then Democratic Gov. Roy Romer. Now, said Dandurand, with conservative Republican Bill Owens in the governor's mansion, the arts program is more vulnerable.

The two legislators who have proposed the idea, meanwhile, insist they are not against art. They say they just wonder whether public art is more important than some other pressing state needs.

"The issue is the money," said Owen, adding that he'll co-sponsor a bill eliminating the art fund if Lawrence introduces the legislation in the next session.

"The problem is that the state does not have enough money for controlled maintenance of state buildings -- replacing plumbing, ceiling tiles, painting -- those kind of things," Owen said.

"We now have a half-billion-dollar backlog in controlled maintenance projects, and under TABOR limits, the money is not there," said Owen, who suggested that the state turn to students and other volunteers to provide art for public buildings.

"The question is: Is art more important than controlled maintenance?" Owen asked.

Critics of Owen's arguments say that contrast between maintenance and art is a false one. One percent of building costs -- which average roughly $700,000 a year in recent budget cycles -- would do little, they said, to fix the maintenance-backlog problem.

Further, they said, public art is an integral part of successful building design, and that there's both economic and emotional value to the state to have art at important buildings such as colleges, which rely on aesthetics to help draw students.

"From an economic standpoint, art is what helps create prosperity, it's what creates an inviting environment that attracts quality businesses to the area," said Pat Musick, a local artist who recently completed an installation at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. The outdoor artwork was completed with funds from the Percent for the Arts program.

By extension, art might also draw students to a Colorado university, or skilled workers to a state office complex, she suggested.

On a more emotional level, Musick said, art enhances public discourse and inspires students' desire to learn. At Mesa State College, for example, her landscaped outdoor installation borrowed themes from math and science to create an area for students to sit and study.

Artists say they are not against students volunteering art for public spaces. But, they said, the state may get what it pays for if it relies solely on free art for its public spaces. After all, they said, professional artists are trained in how to use color and proportion to create public art that fits in particular outdoor environments.

"To get a degree in art requires as much education as to become a medical doctor," said the Arts Council's Tilley, who dismissed claims from the legislators that they are not attacking art. "If they want to get rid of the tax, they are against art."

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