Austin art: pricey or priceless?



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Posted on November 10, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 11 at 11:20 AM

From the iconic to the ironic everyone seems to have an opinion about Austin's art.

"It's terrible,” said David Valenzuela. “It's ugly."

“I think it’s marvelous,” said Robert Chusing.

Drive around the city and you’re hard pressed not to see some of the art that has gone up in Austin over the years.

"I think the town wouldn't be so diverse and there wouldn't be so many activities going on here if art wasn't a big part of this city," said Katherine Ciapponi of Austin.

Some of the most notable works include the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue at Lady Bird Lake. Family members donated the money to put up that. Another family donated the money for the famous bat sculpture at Congress Avenue.

Taxpayers pay for many projects you see including the Barton Barriers. Described by the artist as Austin's Stonehenge, the city pitched in $4,300 for the temporary sculpture earlier this year.

“$4,300?” asked Valenzuela. “I think it could have been put to a lot better use; definitely a lot better use.”

"It's not keeping Austin weird. I don't know, it's ugly," said Erika Wulff.

Which made us wonder: how much does the city spend on art?

Here's what we found:

  • The city paid $45,000 for the blue signs under the Lamar Bridge called “Moments.”
  • Another $40,000 is being spent to install programmable lights underneath the I-35 underpass near the Austin Police Department.
  • “Because we need programmable lights under there?” questioned D.J. Fakete. “I think that might be a waste.”
  • Austin is currently spending $87,000 to construct a Skate Park downtown.
  • That’s almost as much as it paid for the carved railing along Cesar Chavez.
  • There is a new picnic table located right across the street from the Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail along Cesar Chavez. The city spent $200,000 on it.

All of these projects have some people asking, ‘Who decides what's art?’

"The city is not in a position to say what is art," said Megan Crigger.

For 13 years Crigger has been in charge of the city’s Art in Public Places project. AIPP is one of the ways the city funds art.       

Artists help decide which projects are selected and how much they are worth, then the city council has the final say. Two percent of the city's construction budget funds Art in Public Places every year.

"New projects coming online every year might average $200,000 to $300,000 based on that two percent," said Crigger.

That $300,000 a year is on top of donations and other funding sources.

Remember those blue signs under Lamar? The city took $45,000 from the hotel occupancy tax to pay for them.

All of this comes at a time when the city is tightening its belt. Already this year it has cut out traditions like the Trail of Lights, and many city departments are leaving job openings vacant.

"I mean I know the economy has stayed pretty strong in Austin compared to other places, but I feel we could be spending our money elsewhere," said Austinite Katherine Ciapponi.

It turns out Austin is right in line with many other big Texas cities. Houston sets aside 1.75 percent of its construction project budget for art. Dallas budgets 1.5 percent.

Dallas also requires at least 25 percent of the work to be awarded to artists living in Dallas. Austin does not have that requirement. However, according to Crigger, of the 150 projects that have been commissioned over the years, 125 were awarded to local artists, 22 to artists within Texas and 3 have been awarded nationally.

For example, that $200,000 picnic table was designed and made by an artist in Miami. Austin does limit the amount of money artists can pocket to 15 percent of the total amount of the project cost.

"I think it's very fair,” said Austin artist Deborah Mersky.

Mersky created the carved railing at Cesar Chavez for which the city paid $80,000.           

"I was satisfied with the budget," said Mersky.

The railings showcase a bit of Austin history. They include pictures of the two major floods in Austin and the carved aluminum is in the shape of objects you might have seen floating down the river.

"You get things that are odd and less popular and then you get things that are wildly popular. You can't have one without the other," said Mersky.

There really are just as many different pieces of art as there are opinions about it.

“Anything that makes the downtown an interesting place for people to come,” said Robert Cushin. “I’m not against art and I don’t think there are very many people in Austin that are.”

“Maybe they need to rethink what they're doing with the budget,” said Fakete.

“I think that adds to the richness of the conversation quite frankly,” said Crigger.

Or it's further proof art really is in the eye of the beholder.

You can check out a list of the Art in Public Places projects for the last five years in the attached link above. You can also take a look at some of the projects yourself here.

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