Friday, February 10, 2012

Sincere, innocent bungling will hamper public-art policy

I've been watching the developing story of a public-art policy for Prescott, and as usual our town is a few years late to the gate, so the insane events at Granite Creek Park and Miller Valley School have sparked a reactionary process that will inevitably be about preventing controversy. Artists will be perfectly right to look on this with doubt if not suspicion.
    Unfortunately the City exacerbated the problem with its first move, in which it handed the hot potato to Elizabeth Ruffner and the Prescott Area Arts and Humanities Council with practically no public process.
    I served three years on the PAAHC board of directors and I believe the organization has the potential to be useful to artists and contribute to the community in important ways. But its modern incarnation has yet to find a clear mission or clear benefit for membership, making it a small, self-selected interest group, plagued with the inevitable weaknesses of such groups.
    This is not to say that PAAHC is incapable of doing the job. Rather, Council should have spent some time hearing public input on who should take on the responsibility and establishing credibility both for the process and the decision-makers. Score another hamhanded, amateur move for Council.
     Now PAAHC has to step up and establish its credibility with the public on its own. From what I've seen, it has selected a committee of officers and members, again without public process or deliberation, and set to. Score another hamhanded, amateur move for PAAHC.
     Elizabeth Ruffner's status as spokesperson for the arts community is entirely informal, based on her decades of work on behalf of the arts in Prescott as well as her status as matriarch of one of Prescott's old cowboy families. I do not doubt her sincerity or her political clout, but her political style favors the good-ol'-boy network and keeping things controlled and inside, which will lead inevitably to doubt among outsiders about any decision the group makes. Her organizational and leadership skills have been formed entirely in small-town Prescott, and her history over the past twenty years or so demonstrates her limitations in this area.
    Cindy Gresser is also a sweetie-pie and will bring a lot of positive energy to the project. But like Ms Ruffner, she's a fan, not a professional, thrust into a position of responsibility at Smoki Museum by circumstances rather than merit or training. The political situation at the museum has been in disarray for years, with Ms Gresser continually at the center of the storm. This does not inspire public confidence, whatever the facts are behind it.
   The best thing PAAHC could do at this point is rethink its strategy and start over. The obvious political heat around this issue requires a wide-open process that puts respected arts professionals in the key positions, publicly referencing established, successful precedents in other cities and inviting both professional and public input in open sessions that have been carefully and widely promoted. No one in Prescott should have the slightest reason to believe that they could not have participated if they'd just got up off the couch, or bitch about it afterward.
   PAAHC has a few extra-smart people already working on the committee (you know who you are), and I hope they'll be able to persuade the good-ol'-boy network to loosen up on this and stand back for the good of the project.
   Getting this one right could finally boost PAAHC up to organizational credibility. Getting it wrong, as it seems to be going now, will doom both the policy and the organization.

La Grande Vitesse by Alexander Calder, commissioned in 1967 as the centerpiece of the new government complex in Grand Rapids, MI, my home town. It was instantly accepted as the city's logo, a tradition that continues today. Public art matters, and can have huge impact if we let it.
Update, Saturday: Note the comment below by Charlene Craig, which is right on point and adds a lot to the discussion. On reflection, I'm concerned that the process will go beyond preventing controversy to the active exclusion of whole categories of human thought, issues and even people. Bear in mind that the manufactured controversy over the Miller Valley School mural was about excluding people of color as "not representative of Prescott." We could easily see the process pandering to the culture warriors and ensuring that the policy requires public art to be pretty, dull and non-threatening to right-wing sensibilities. I'd have to wonder whether the Vietnam memorial on the square would pass muster in the current political climate.