How To Improve Public Art in Dallas

In the latest edition of D Magazine, I have an article that discusses current policies and procedures for commissioning publically-funded public art in Dallas and specifically the merit of the Percentage for Art Ordinance, the city’s main funding mechanism. That ordinance dedicates a percentage of funds from every capital project included in a municipal bond program towards public art.

What I didn’t have space to discuss in the piece are some specific changes to city policy and practice that would greatly improve how the city of Dallas goes about commissioning public works. Here are my ideas:

1)      Do not tie works of public art to specific capital improvement projects: This is the foundational principal of the Percentage for Art Ordinance, but it is self-defeating. Rather than forcing aesthetically-appealing, beautifying elements to be included in all of the city’s bond-funded capital improvements, it sets up a situation that inhibits the city’s ability to fund significant works of public art by dissecting available funds into small, one-off commissions. The city and its public would be better served if funds created by the ordinance were able to be lumped together and spent on a handful of significant works of public art rather than a work for every bond project improvement. This seems to be possible. Fort Worth Avenue Development Group president David Lyles told me the city’s public art manager, Kay Kalos, has been able to allocate funds tied to various capital improvements to Lyles’ West Commerce public art project, greatly increasing the available budget. But that approach shouldn’t be a one-off a novelty for public art funding; it should be regular practice.

2)      Increase the involvement of our art institutions in public art commissions, policy making, and strategy: Ladies and gentlemen, the culture wars are over. Art administrators and curators have grown increasingly sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of the general public. Yet the way the procedural structure is set up for the approval of public works, art experts are either a minority or non-existent in the process. More prevalent, rather, are community and art activists. Remember, it is the job of art curators to possess a deep knowledge base of the most interesting artists working the world today. It is also their job to build relationships with these artists. Even if the city could never afford to commission a titan of the art world for a public art commission, our institutions are populated with art professionals who know who the next titans are, how much they cost, and whose art may prove best suited to addressing our city’s spatial and cultural needs. Use that resource.

3)      Don’t be afraid to challenge the public: In researching my article, one thing I heard from people involved in the current processes for commissioning public art was that art administrators need to be sensitive to the needs, taste, and education of those in the community who are going to be experiencing the work of art. And while that is certainly true, that sensitivity is often miss-interpreted as a need to speak down to the public audience by commissioning works that are accessible in a way that renders them benign, or obvious in a way that dilutes the purpose and mission of public art in the first place. There’s no such thing as baby steps in art. Art – real art – excites the public precisely by provoking and challenging. The general public is not as stupid as some of the art installed on Dallas streets assumes it is. Challenge us! Surprise us! Don’t cater to populist fears or trepidation about contemporary art, rather, be ambassadors for the power of art. You’ll be surprised how the community will rise to – and ultimately embrace — the challenge, as other ambitious public art projects in other cities have proven.

4)      Local doesn’t matter: One of the prerogatives of our city’s cultural policy should be to create ways of steering income towards working artists living in our community. But public art commissions should not be one of the means by which we support our local artists. Why? Because fifty years after a work of public art is commissioned, no one will care where the artist lived that created the work. But the people who live near the work in decades’ time will care that it is a piece that deserves its permanence and profile. Choose the best project, not just the local one on principle.

5)      Public Art means that the art is made for the public, not by the public: Most of us aren’t artists, but the committee-driven procedure for commissioning public art is steered by a broad base of invested community members. Neighbors should not determine the scope and mission of projects. Artists are productive members of society precisely because they bring to the table insights and understanding about their craft and our society that we typically don’t have. This means that the language used when commissioning new works must grant as much leeway as absolutely possible to the working artist. It must allow space for an artist to do what he or she does. If it doesn’t, our requests for proposals won’t garner submissions from the best artists, artists who don’t want their talent micro-managed.

6)      Allow for a way to fund artist-initiated projects: At this point, there are two ways for the city of Dallas to commission a work of public art: it needs to be commissioned and funded through the Percent for Art Ordinance, or it can be donated to the city by an outside party. Neither of these approaches creates an opportunity for an artist to bring to the table their own ideas and propose specific public projects. Public art is all about context, but neither of our avenues for creating public art in Dallas allow for artists to suggest the context which they believe is ripe for artistic engagement. For example, when speaking with Linnae Glatt for my story, the artist said she has an idea for a project for the space outside the Museum of Nature and Science in Fair Park. It is a project that would only work in that specific locale, yet under current city policy, there is no way to ever fund such a commission unless the museum undergoes massive renovation as part of a city bond program. That’s a backwards approach.

7)      Fund temporary art installations: In my conversations with the city’s public art manager, Kay Kaylos, she said that temporary public art installations were something she is interested in eventually pursuing and something that other groups, such as Downtown Dallas, Inc., are interested in commissioning independently. But the current funding of the city’s public art program does not allow for temporary installations precisely because that funding is tied to specific capital improvements. The Percent for Art Ordinance needs to be amended to allow for the creation of a fund that could fund rotating public art exhibitions that are curated along the lines of temporary public projects, like New York’s High Line Project or the Public Art Fund. Temporary art commissions allow for the opportunity for more adventurous work, the commissioning of more artists, and often projects can be commissioned for less money. Because they don’t bear the weight of permanence, temporary public art projects are typically be more provocative, sensational, dynamic, and engaging. Public art is important to the city of Dallas precisely because this is a city that doesn’t have a vibrant public sphere. We want public art that will both encourage more public street activity and raise our level of social discourse. We want public art that will attract crowds and create conversations. Temporary art installations will prove more efficacious at fulfilling these goals for public art than the lumbering commissions we currently undertake.

Dallas’ public art problems are not unique to our city. Our policies are similar to many other municipalities throughout the U.S., which is to say many cities are also stuck commissioning weak work. But this is an area in which Dallas could take a leading role by rethinking how cities should approach public art commissions.

Image: Lisa Sigal and Paul Ramírez Jonas’ Specials at the High Line (via)

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