Austin art hidden from view


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

Posted on August 17, 2012 at 6:24 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 2 at 3:50 AM

AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation has uncovered publicly funded art hidden from view. It involves more than half a million dollars in artwork you can’t see and enjoy without first getting special permission or sometimes not at all.

That includes a $244,000 art piece called “Showershade” at the city’s police and fire academy. Surrounded by a security fence, it’s also supposed to provide shade for cadets.
Behind a concrete wall and security cameras, the City also purchased a $97,000 decorative fountain and bench called “The Island.” It’s an art piece for the communication facility built in 2003.
Meghan Turner, the art program’s director, says the artist even interviewed employees when deciding how to create the art project. “It was intended to basically be a way for those employees to unwind, relax. They have really high-stress jobs; you can imagine being in a 911 call center.”
Another piece for employees involves a $67,000 interactive art piece that will go inside a new Austin energy building currently under construction. It’s called “Magnetic Column.” Homeland security concerns prevent the public from going inside.
In 2004, the City paid an artist $130,000 to create a landscape art project called “Elevated Prairie.” It’s located outside of the police department’s forensic facility. While available for public view, it’s nearly impossible to see it’s supposed resemble a fingerprint unless you’re on the second story looking down.
“It is hard to see, but I think the neighborhood really embraces that piece so there’s a lot of stakeholders, sort of ownership of that piece,” said Turner.
By ordinance, the City must spend two percent of the cost of new public buildings on art, even if it’s a secure facility.
“It’s one of those programs with good intentions that doesn’t quite match up, ” argued George Vanderhume, Austin’s former police association president. He’s a long-time critic of the ordinance. “This kind of stuff is like buying pieces of art and then putting it in the closet where no one can see it.”
Council member Laura Morrison sees it differently. “I don’t see it as a major issue,” Morrison said.
She says the art pieces the KVUE Defenders found represent less than two percent of the city’s art collection.
“What does it mean to have reasonable public access? That’s what we have to be talking about. It’s not that every piece needs to be outside,” Morrison said.
The City may soon approve funding for four new public safety facilities that could mandate more than $668,000 spent on art pieces. Vanderhume says that money that could buy 975 bullet proof vests, 600 tasers and 11 new patrol cars.
The public can see some secure art by appointment, but Turner admits that’s rare. “We’re certainly open and receptive to those calls, but it doesn’t happen very often."
The City says the committee that decides on each art piece always tries to make each piece as publicly available as possible.

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