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Art for Art's Sake!

City Finally Patches the Holes in Public Art Program

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As expected, Portland City Council last week voted on a series of changes to the Percent for Art program—which will ultimately increase the amount of funds that city bureaus direct toward the city's public art collection. Even better, the new ordinance could patch a number of inefficient holes that have been plaguing the program since its infancy.

At the core of the 25-year-old Percent for Arts program is a requirement that any time a participating city bureau—like the Portland Development Commission, or Parks and Recreation—spends money on building or repairing a facility for public use, a percentage of the funds are handed over to the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to be put toward artwork that is accessible to the public.

It's one of the few ways that the city government can directly impact the character of the city and give work—and ramen money—to local artists.

Over the last four years, RACC funneled around $1 million of the city's money into public art. The program covers high-profile—and frequently maligned—pieces like the mammoth "Portlandia" statue that menaces workers entering the Portland Building. But it also handles smaller pieces, like a number of installations inside Portland's firehouses and city hall.

Last Wednesday's (January 11) council decision bumps that percentage up to 2 percent from 1.33 percent, which should bring in around $140,000 more a year. Most of those new funds will be earmarked for maintenance of existing pieces.

The new law also closes up some gaping holes in the accounting process—or, to be more accurate, it finally creates an accounting process. In August, the city auditor's office released a report on their investigation—prompted by a request from RACC—into how well the program was or wasn't being followed. The problem? There wasn't even enough accounting information available for the auditor to determine how much money should have been directed at Percent for Art versus how much actually went to RACC. The numbers were simply non-existent.

Instead, what the auditor's team found was that there was no system in place for determining which city projects were eligible for the program, or even for informing RACC about possible projects that would send them money. RACC had to rely solely on bureau project managers to alert them about upcoming projects, or else the organization was forced to do its own sleuthing. The result is a system that the auditor found "informal" and "murky."

"There had never been a clear system for identifying eligible projects and verifying that the percentage contributions were followed through," RACC Executive Director Eloise Damrosch told the Mercury. "It just wasn't clear enough."

According to some observers, a few bureau managers have been less than active in participating with the program—with no built-in safeguards, their projects simply went unreported to RACC. (Damrosch refused to say which bureaus were less than cooperative with the program.) And even among RACC-friendly bureau managers, there was widespread confusion about projects that qualified for Percent for Art.

The question, then, is why did it take 25 years for someone to finally speak up about the program's built-in deficiencies? Damrosch said it was a combination of factors, not the least of which being there are no successful programs in other cities for them to follow—that is, every other government that has a Percent for Art program manages theirs just as poorly as Portland.

But a revamp of the program has apparently been in the works since City Commissioner Erik Sten was in charge of arts and culture. At that time, the push began to increase the percentage at the same time that the rules were overhauled—that finally happened under new Arts Commissioner Sam Adams.

The ordinance passed unanimously by the council last week does a number of things: Increases the city's contribution to two percent; lowers the eligibility threshold on projects (previously, a project had to be funded by at least $100,000 in eligible funds; it's now $50,000); adapts the program to apply to whole purchases of new buildings, in addition to improvements to existing buildings; and establishes a system that allows the city and RACC to verify that all eligible projects are being reported.

Assuming the widespread enthusiasm for rehabbing the program continues to resonate at all participating bureaus, Portland's Percent for Art program could finally become a model for other cities to follow.

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