The importance of art in the heart of the city

The artwork in the Municipal Services Building Plaza suffers from graffiti and disrepair. Credit: Charles Mostoller.
The artwork in the Municipal Services Building Plaza suffers from graffiti and disrepair. Credit: Charles Mostoller.

Once again, it comes back to the schools.

The motivation to inspect the city’s art collection stemmed from the school district’s attempt to sell its own art collection last year.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz said the school district thought its more than 1,000-piece collection was worth at least $30 million in the early 2000s, but then saw the value plummet in the post-recession era. Latest estimates put the collection’s worth around $1 million.

“We were very concerned,” Butkovitz said.

The conversation moved from fear for the security over those pieces “into a generalized concern about how the city is maintaining the art IT owns,” Butkovitz said.

So his office released a performance audit a few weeks ago of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which oversees the city’s robust 1,000-piece collection, which includes sculptures, reliefs, mosaics, stained glass kinetic works, architectural adornments, paintings and murals.

Butkovitz claimed to find damaged, vandalized, uncategorized and missing pieces. The report also blasted the department for its lack of procedures for loaning, relocating, valuing and cataloging individual art pieces.

Margot Berg, public art director for the OACCE, said part of the report was inaccurate.

“We have a detailed inventory of all the works in the collection,” she said. “And we’ve undertaken the majority of the city’s most treasured artworks — some going back to the 1800s.”

She conceded the office is adopting the suggestions to create a manual of its processes. But she said it’s hard to get to it all.  At the school district, the art was to provide “a sense of aesthetics, a civilized tone to the building,” Butkovitz said. But with the city’s art, it’s all over the place.

“The city has left many of these pieces in place but they’re in places like recreation centers, they’re murals on walls, they’re hanging from the ceilings of recreation centers, and no special precautions are made to recognize that this is art and that it may have value and it needs to be protected in some way.”

School district officials were not immediately available for comment.

One percent for art’s sake

First established in 1959, the city’s Percent-for-Art Program requires 1 percent of all capital projects be spent on public art.

The plan was to enhance the city structure.

The art is not required to be reported in the city’s financial statements.

And if any pieces of the artwork are sold, the proceeds can only be used to acquire other pieces of art for the collections.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy was created in 1986 to oversee the city’s art collection.

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