Measuring Enrichment: Why Public Art Is So Hit-And-Miss

04/03/2011 01:33 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2011

Department of Defense (DOD) employees moving into a new building this fall may start their days walking past a sculpture of a toad with a ten-foot fairy on its back. Federal facilities have never been renowned for their challenging public art, but critics have gone on the offensive since it was revealed that the piece, one of four finalists for the site's installation, would cost $400,000-$600,000 and would be viewed largely by the same group of about 2,500 employees each day.

It's hard out there for a public artwork. Usually, the story is about political censorship, like when Governor Paul LePage (R-Maine) ordered the removal of a pro-union mural at the state's Department of Labor. But just as troubling as the corporate art lobby is the government's see-no-evil attitude toward public art that doesn't offend anyone.

It's not really about the fairy riding the toad; it's about officials' unwillingness to scrutinize their commissions. Because the arts' effects are often immeasurable, the government has no frame of reference for how much artistic projects are actually worth. Administrators may be oblivious to overspending, even if the public has no trouble calling a toad a toad.

Evaluation is easier, of course, when it comes to larger-scale works. Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" in Chicago, wound up costing $23 million (in private funds), but has become a remarkably successful tourist destination and landmark since its completion in 2006. If a sculpture like "Cloud Gate" drives millions of visits each year, it's declared it a success. But how do you measure the impact of an artwork that the same 2,500 people see every day? Higher employee satisfaction ratings? A thousand enthusiastic fans? A hundred? Ten?

The reality is that these criteria don't even enter the official deliberation process. The people administering federal budgets for individual facilities, the advisory groups, the city councils, view their arts allocations as money that must be spent. In commissioning an artwork, they don't have to understand it or like it or expect others to like it, they just have to approve it. The abrupt selection of finalists for the DOD installation speaks to this apathy; ARTINFO quotes advisory group member Don Buch:

It was my understanding, and I believe that of many others, that public art was really no one's immediate priority and it would essentially be held in abeyance until the...buildings were completed and operational. To now be advised that there is suddenly a short-list of four proposals, which will be on display at Ramsey Rec Center for a week and we need to hurry on over as we are now 'on a fast time frame' is troubling.

If administrators don't care which installation gets built, isn't that just as bad as having no arts budget in the first place? Sure, artistic success can't really be measured, but we have an intuition for massive overspending, and an "anything goes" attitude clearly runs counter to artists' values. We may not be able to expect a committee to select creations that will have lasting impact, but administrators would benefit from devoting more attention to the merits of one public artwork over another--or giving that responsibility to someone else--if only to avoid putting more half-million-dollar fairies on their record.