Tony Gehrig: Public Art Need Not Be Publicly Funded


There has been a bit of mudslinging revolving around my stance on public art vs publicly funded art. Whether you agree or disagree, I would like to take this opportunity to layout my position and encourage thoughtful public discourse.

It is possible to support public art, which of course I do, and not support publicly funded art. They are two distinct and different things. Public art is any media planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. Think of the buffalo in downtown Fargo, public art funded privately.

Publicly funded art can basically be the same but funded by the taxpayers. Like if the buffalo were funded with tax dollars, which they weren’t. These two separate ideas are not mutually exclusive, however suggesting one can’t exist without the other requires a level of cognitive dissonance.

Allow me to explain:

Publicly funded art is unnecessary in Fargo. If art in Fargo is as important and popular as proponents claim (I personally believe it is) then it is unnecessary to subsidize. Similar to saying, “New homes in south Fargo are in incredible demand, we should subsidize them!”, or “Downtown Fargo is booming, we should subsidize it!” By the way, our city commission inexplicably does both. It makes equally as much sense funding popular art with public dollars. If something is in high demand on the free market then we should not use tax dollars to support it.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]It is hard for me to think of anything more counterintuitive than government art.[/mks_pullquote]

When we publicly fund art, art that we all agree is in high demand in Fargo, we don’t fund other things or at least not to the level that we could. Homeless veterans, under privileged children, struggling or abused women, and many other charities all compete directly, literally, with publicly funded art for tax dollars. The dollars all come from the same Social Services and Arts mill.

Publicly funded art is censored art. It is hard for me to think of anything more counterintuitive than government art. Look no further than the 10 Commandments. Is it art? Who decides? How about “David”? “The Birth of Venus”? “Nu Couche’”? Think of other controversial pieces that might never be accepted for local government support. Art is supposed to invoke a reaction, an emotion. But publicly funded art can only invoke what emotion the government wants you to feel, better yet, allows you to feel.

Public art can be achieved with little or no impact to the tax payers, as expressed in the buffalo example. But of course there are other ways. Organizations displaying art, businesses supporting local art on their walls, art in the park, art at the street fair, sidewalk art, and local government can help by offering space. So let us not assume that public art wouldn’t exist without public dollars, because you see it has before government intervention, and it will without it. Art is best when left in the hands of the people; we should keep it that way.

It is easy to support public art in Fargo and not support publicly funded art. They are two very different things. This is one man’s opinion. In forming this opinion, I have reached out to people who disagree with me and I have challenged myself to look from different perspectives. I encourage readers to do the same. If you have a strong reaction reading this, for or against, remember that is a good thing…much like the emotion you might feel looking at a piece of public art.