More than two years ago, Missoula’s City Council made public art a priority by requiring that 1 percent of construction funds for public works projects be spent on public art. Art is important enough, people said at the time, to ensure that its presence grows along with Missoula.
But June 13, in the face of the first major project to fall under the terms of the ordinance, Council will hold a public hearing to consider changing the ordinance to allow a two-thirds majority to exempt projects. The move is an attempt to rescue the city’s beached aquatics project, for which the lowest bid came in more than $2 million over the $8.1 million voters agreed to pay. And as the city scrambles to piece together additional funding, an exemption from the art ordinance could contribute about $90,000—not much, considering the shortfall, but something.
The word around City Hall is that this is an unfortunate coincidence—that art is still important, but the situation is exceptional. And while supporters of the current ordinance say they sympathize with the project’s dire straits, they are opposed to changing the rules.
“It seems like that opens the door to changes any time there’s a problem [with a project],” says Joan Jonkel, chairwoman of the seven-member Public Art Committee that directs the Percent for Art Program. “In times of financial distress, I can see an unfortunate situation where we would always have to go in and defend it.”
One solution, Jonkel suggests, would be to spend the 1 percent on functional art—items like the aquatics project’s fountains and tile floors could be designed by artists, combining form and function—and the Parks Department and project architects are exploring ways to do just that.
But unfortunate coincidences aside, Jonkel is concerned about the bigger picture, and hopes Council doesn’t set a precedent of abandoning art (and its ordinances) as a means of solving short-term problems.
“It [would] sort of defeat the whole purpose—it opens the door to endless discussion,” Jonkel says. Surely Council wouldn’t want to open that door.