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Commentary: Effort to enact a 'percent for art' dies an undeserved death

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 10, 2010 - Crowds have flocked to Citygarden since its opening last summer. Pleasant landscaping and a variety of sculpture plus fountains to cool visitors on the hottest days have pleased St. Louisans. People from a wide variety of backgrounds have enjoyed this newest manifestation of public art made possible by private giving. This success makes one wonder whether the time is propitious to think of using art more widely downtown and in the neighborhoods to provide identity, meeting places and a little whimsy.

About 300 cities in the United States have enacted a "percent for art" program that enables the purchase, installation and maintenance of art. Several states -- from Maine to Washington -- have such a policy as well. So does Australia and a number of European countries. In Missouri, Kansas City, Columbia, Clayton and possibly soon Creve Coeur have "percent for art." Centene Corp. must furnish a work of art in conjunction with the building of its headquarters at Forsyth and Hanley.

In the 1990s, a committee appointed by St. Louis' mayor developed such a policy for our central city. It died in an aldermanic committee. Recently, Alderman Antonio French of the 21st ward, joined by 12 cosponsors, introduced a bill that would have levied 1 percent for art from the cost of city projects and private projects that are covered by TIFs or tax abatement. The money from this levy was to be spent in the following way:

  • 50 percent at the project site for art, defined as including innovative landscaping or lighting
  • 25 percent to fund projects in the city's neighborhoods
  • 25 percent to conserve the city's stock of public art and administer the program

But today, French's bill - just as its counterpart decades ago - died in committee.
As anyone would acknowledge, these are difficult economic times. Banks are not lending and many development projects are stymied. Is this the best time to lay a new burden on development?

Aldermen with development in their wards voted against the bill. Developers testified against it, as did Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development. Those in opposition cited the difficulty in funding projects.

Still, the "percent for arts" would not have taken effect until July 1, 2012. The Great Recession will eventually taper off. And percent for art has not been a deal killer in 300 other cities, any number of which are in the Rust Belt and have also experienced population and job loss.

Art work gives definition to a city and to a neighborhood. Percent for art is a quality-of-life program that has provided positive benefit to many locales.

Will it take two more decades before those who hold the reins of power in the city can embrace public support for public art. People who question the need or the expense should take another stroll through Citygarden or remember that the most notable piece of public art in the nation can be found here: Eero Saarinen's Arch.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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