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October 6, 2011

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When times are tough and budgets tight, politicians rein in spending on nonessential services lest they face their constituents’ wrath. Public art, which often gets batted around like a political hockey puck, is usually among the first victims.

Such was the case last week when the Chattanooga City Council clashed over the proposed purchase of “Blue Boy Pull Toy #1,” the big blue rhino atop a cart by local artist John Petrey that’s been celebrated by residents, visitors and art mavens since it took up residence near the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

The mayor-appointed citizen board that recommends public art purchases financed by private and public funding endorsed spending $32,000 to purchase “Blue Boy”, citing its critical and popular acclaim. And while the sculpture is the committee’s first recommended outlay in three years, at least two councilmembers couldn’t resist the chance to score political points by objecting to the expense.

“I hate to see this brought up now until we get through these economic hard times,” said Councilman Jack Benson in a report on chattanoogan.com. “I’m not ready to spend money for public art right now even if it is already covered in the city parks and recreation budget.”

Councilwoman Deborah Scott also chimed in, according to the website, with the old saw that fixing roads is more important.

Both sentiments would be relevant if money were being diverted from public works and city services—but it’s not. The funds for Petrey’s piece would be drawn from existing capital already approved for such expenditures—to continue Chattanooga’s growing reputation as a gold-star example of mid-size cities embracing the arts.

“What the public doesn’t understand is that we have budget of more than $300,000,” said Peggy Townsend, who heads the Public Art Committee and acts as part-time director of Public Art Chattanooga, the nonprofit foundation that manages more than 100 permanent and 42 temporary artworks placed throughout the city. “This is a small part of the budget and the funds from the city budget are miniscule while the benefits are huge.”

Indeed, Petrey, an internationally recognized artist who relocated to Chattanooga under the ArtsMove grant program, would directly benefit from the sale and the money would stay in the city. By vetoing the purchase, council would find themselves in the uncomfortable position of quashing a sustained cultural movement and an economic generator all at once.

Townsend said she’s optimistic the purchase would be approved during the city’s Tuesday, October 4, meeting. The purchase requires at least five affirmative votes and the much-photographed “Blue Boy” has fans on the council —Andrae McGary (who also serves on the Public Art Committee), Russell Gilbert, Sally Robinson and Peter Murphy all praised the work and noted public art was among the reasons Chattanooga attracted so many visitors and corporate investment.

Townsend worries Benson or Scott—the usual dissenters in public art battles—could topple the rhino’s cart, but lauds the support of most of the council.

“I’m feeling good about it,” she said in an interview last week. “Four councilmembers made passionate and eloquent pleas for public art in Chattanooga, which is an ingredient in any successful and livable city.”

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October 6, 2011

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