The art of being mayor: How much focus should be on art, beauty?

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Chris Beutler has left his mark on the city of Lincoln in his seven years as mayor, but nowhere is it more obvious than in the numerous pieces of public art and beautification of neighborhoods and business districts citywide.

BRICKHEAD: One public art piece that generated significant debate was this piece call Groundwater Colossus, a ceramic brick sculpture with sound elements. The $115,000 sculpture was paid for with proceeds of a trust fund set up by a former mayor

But some say he should be more focused on job creation and less concerned about making Lincoln pretty and artsy. Take downtown, for example. The recently created P Street retail corridor was torn up every which way and dotted with orange construction cones.

Fancy sidewalks with movie reels imprinted into them — installed just a few years ago as part of a taxpayer-subsidized downtown theater renovation — were ripped out on P Street as part of a new $4.6 million, five-block beautification project.

The boring old one-way street is being transformed into a prettier, narrower one-way street with wider sidewalks and more places for people to congregate. In the end it will be … prettier. Same goes for the drive from the Lincoln airport to downtown.

The streets and medians are torn up and set to get a $6 million makeover so that the drive isn’t so … ugly. Those are two highly visible examples of the Beutler administration’s focus on beautification, art and redevelopment. Beutler, an art aficionado, has become renovator in chief, giving the city an extreme makeover.

Look around: Several years ago the business district in College View, a neighborhood near the Seventh-Day Adventist Union College, got a taxpayer-funded tune-up, with new ornamental lighting and banners, signs, benches, plantings, rain gardens and decorative concrete.

SWEET? This oversized box of chocolates adorns the lobby in Lincoln’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena. The $317,000 piece of art also generated considerable debate.

A similar spruce-up occurred in the Havelock business district in northeast Lincoln, where storefronts got upgrades. Same went for a nine-block stretch of South Street.

The list goes on. And what renovation would be complete without a splash of art? During Beutler’s tenure, a $115,000 brick head sculpture was placed in Union Plaza park, paid for with proceeds of a trust fund set up by a former mayor. The sculpture generated heated discussion online in 2009, with some deriding it as a blockhead and others calling the purchase a brickhead move. With each passing year the mayor seems to have gotten bolder about reaching into the public purse to buy art.

But he stepped in a big pile of doggy doo when he nearly spent a half-million dollars on a 12-foot-long train sculpture from a New York artist who filmed himself killing a shelter dog in the 1970s and called it art. Community backlash forced the mayor to back down. Beutler seems to think if you give a neighborhood a facelift, and punctuate it with art, economic development will come. His administration has made huge public investments in redevelopment, especially downtown.

Explaining his rationale for beautifying the road from the airport to downtown, he said first impressions are important and the makeover might encourage economic development along the route.

Beutler said in a statement to Nebraska Watchdog that while public safety and infrastructure are the essentials and top priority for public funding, Lincolnites “want more than just functionality.”

“They want good schools, quality parks and libraries, and interesting places to shop, work, be entertained, and more,” he said. “They want to be safe and secure, but they also want to enjoy a high quality of life. That’s why we work towards a balanced and more complete community.”

But some wonder if the mayor isn’t overly focused on beautification and art, at the expense of more mundane, core responsibilities like fixing streets. Dave Miller, host of the KLIN “Jack & Dave Show” in Lincoln, occasionally jabs the mayor for this. He suggests the mayor’s priorities are out of whack.

“I just wonder if the mayor is more concerned about art than taking care of infrastructure,” he said in an interview. “My street and my sidewalks really need a lot of help. … There are streets that need to be paved, there are sidewalks that need to be done.” Matt Litt, director of the Nebraska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said his group’s position is tax dollars should be spent on “necessary public services.”

For that reason, for example, it opposed the state spending $2.5 million on four water fountains at the Capitol but supported restoring the Capitol itself. Miller said he doesn’t have a problem with public art, especially if it’s donated, but he’d like to see more Nebraska artists’ work featured and in areas that really need revitalization. Instead, most of the focus has been downtown. “So far as I’m concerned, downtown is taken care of, but what about the rest of the city?” he said.

SOARING: A rendering of the 57-foot-tall multicolored glass sculpture by Japanese sculptor Jun Kaneko that will soon be placed in the city’s new $3.6 million downtown civic plaza.

In 2011, Beutler appointed a public arts committee whose goal is to develop a public art collection “of national prominence.”

The group launched a website with an inventory of public art pieces citywide. It identified 20 locations for art installations across the city. No. 1 on the list: the airport entryway corridor. Although the group says most of the art it chooses will be paid for privately, already some of its pieces have been publicly funded, including the brickhead sculpture.

Soon, Beutler will unveil his pièce de résistance downtown: a soaring 57-foot-tall multicolored glass sculpture by one of his favorite artists, Japanese sculptor Jun Kaneko. It’s being fabricated in a German factory and soon will be erected in the city’s new $3.6 million civic plaza at the corner of 13th and P streets.

The new civic plaza is so important to the city that it paid a marketing agency $5,000 just to come up with its name: Tower Square. While private money is being used to buy the $1.15 million Kaneko sculpture, about half the surrounding plaza is being paid for with public money.

Miller questions whether the downtown civic plaza really needs a million-dollar piece of art at its center. “I don’t know that there needs to be art attached to it,” he said. He’s not opposed to public art but thinks it should be placed outside public buildings, not inside, like the $317,000 box of chocolates art installation inside the lobby of Lincoln’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena — just a piece of the arena’s $1.5 million art budget.

“Where you really need art is on the outside,” Miller said. “Why do we not have a giant homegrown Nebraska artist have a giant installation out there? That’s where I would like to see art, not necessarily where I’m going to get a burrito.

Miller said he doesn’t think Beutler is building monuments to himself, trying to “leave this giant legacy behind in stone” – although he wouldn’t be the first mayor to be so accused.

“I want a mayor that makes the trains run on time. I want a mayor that makes the city flow. I want a mayor who cares about economic development,” he said. “I’d rather have the mayor’s office look into the everyday workings of the city as opposed to what the city looks like.”

Beutler noted most of the funding for art projects doesn’t come from taxpayer dollars, but from private investment, philanthropy or increased revenues associated with a particular private development — an apparent reference to tax increment financing, which is public money.

“Signature aspects like public art, museums, sports venues and gathering spaces help elevate Lincoln above other communities when new businesses and employees are looking to locate,” Beutler said.

City Councilman Jon Camp said he thinks the city can provide canvasses for privately funded art, but funding should be focused on infrastructure needs and creating jobs. Developers have complained to him about being pressured to include art in their projects.

“It’s one of those nice wants, but we really need to focus on the needs,” he said.

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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