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Spending public dollars on public art isn't a waste of taxpayer money

At a recent personal finance bloggers conference in Denver, a few of my colleagues and I took time off from talking dollars and cents to see some local sights.

As part of our ice cream and art walking tour (and yes, I admit that the ice cream was as big a draw as the art!) we were treated to some of the Mile High City's public art.

National Velvet by John McEnroe public art Denver Colorado - photo by Kay Bell Sept2012That's "National Velvet" to the left, a sculpture by Denver artist (not pro tennis player) John McEnroe, installed in 2008 at the eastern foot of the city's Highlands Walking Bridge. It cost $53,000 and was paid for through Denver's public art program.

It's a towering mass of red sausage (or kidney bean or water balloon) forms, that lights up at night. While it gets generally positive reviews from the art world, public reaction is mixed.

That's the deal with art. Tastes are different and everyone has an opinion.

Art is meant to create controversy and provoke thought. Both of those situations are amplified when public dollars are involved.

The divergent opinion on "National Velvet" was reflected among those of us on the walking tour. Some of us liked it, others hated it.

I must admit I'm not the biggest fan of most modern art. I didn't hate it. I like the burst of color. I found the artwork interesting.

Is my assessment a cop-out? Yes. I don't live in Denver and I had a very nice time there and don't want to offend any of its residents. Plus, I liked many other of the city's public pieces of art.

Yay publicly supported art: And overall I am still an advocate of art in public places.

It's the only way many people will ever see original creative works.

And I think some tax dollars should be spent for such projects. Obviously practical considerations, primarily a city's fiscal soundness, come first with any expenditures.

But art should be on the list of eventual funding. It, as the cliché goes, means that everyone has some skin in the game. To determine just how much skin is involved, many communities have public-private partnerships with museums or philanthropic groups to help pay for public art displays.

The tax dollars are an important component. Just like with research and development support that governments provide more traditional business sectors, public dollars can go a long way in jump starting added support and helping the arts community survive and thrive.

Public expenditures also force lawmakers and citizens to discuss not only the amount spent, but the reasons for the project.

Public art provides a sense of a place. It helps create cityscapes that contribute to a location's identity and image.

The selection of a piece of public art encourages public participation. That in turn helps build civic pride.

And the debates between opposing art fans and bean counters provide a way for citizens to discuss issues in a civil and collaborative way, something that is sorely missing in politics today.

I'm not saying gut the road improvement budget and transfer that money to an avant-garde downtown mural project. I'm saying integrate the artwork into the public works project and build both together, much the way Denver's National Velvet was done.

Portland art tax vote: Such discussions go on across the country every day. In November, Portland, Ore., voters will decide whether to enact the Arts Education and Access Income Tax.

Under the proposal, almost every adult city resident would pay an additional $35 per year tax to raise $12 million.

Part of the money would first go to elementary schools to hire arts or music teachers.

The remaining funds would go to the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which is directed to spend the new tax money to "support non-profit Portland arts organizations that demonstrate artistic excellence, provide service to the community, show administrative and fiscal competence and provide a wide range of high-quality arts programs to the public."

The artistic -- and tax -- controversy component is on full display in the Pacific Northwest.

The ballot measure already has withstood a court challenge. We'll know on Nov. 7 if it survives voter scrutiny.

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