May 28, 2015
Denver spends big money on controversial public art
Three, 20-foot lanterns stand in front of Denver County’s troubled jail in a bleak industrial area off Havana Street and Smith Road, but the artist and city say the roughly $200,000 taxpayers spent on the public art could help take a bite out of crime.
“The art suggests fresh ways of interpreting the experiences of people who live and work in this area,” “Havana Lanterns” creator David Griggs was quoted in a city news release. “By revealing these opportunities, the art can suggest alternatives to recidivism, and it can reflect upon hope, renewal, and inspiration of new beginnings.”
SEE THE LIGHT: The city stands by the allegedly restorative and reform properties of this public art.
In 1988, then-Mayor Federico Peña signed an executive order requiring all building projects that cost $1 million or more to dedicate 1 percent to public art, and since then Denver taxpayers have paid nearly $32 million for sometimes controversial art projects, city records show. In 1991, the City Council passed an ordinance mirroring Peña’s executive order for new building projects, which are often funded by bond issues and tax increase initiatives.
Another $1.7 million in public art is in the process of being created and installed throughout the city, according to a spreadsheet of projects Watchdog.org obtained.
ART CRITIC: Denver Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz said the city spends too much money on sometimes questionable public art.
Colorado Union of Taxpayers president Gregory Golyansky said public art is a complete waste of money and shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.
“I reject out of hand spending any money on art,” he said. “These projects have to be funded with private funds… I’ve never seen one piece funded by government that I like.”
But Michael Chavez, who runs the city’s program, said public art is key to making Denver a great city.
“It’s extremely important as our city is growing that art is included in design and planning of certain buildings,” he said. “If you think about any great city in the world — London, Paris, New York — it’s not the sewers or the sidewalks people remember. It’s what the cities offer in art culture.”
Denver’s public art has been controversial because the beauty of any particular piece is in the eye of the beholder. Much of the ire has been focused on the 32-foot-tall blue mustang with firey red eyes that greets travelers on their way to Denver International Airport.
HORSEPLAY: The mustang outside of Denver International Airport has been controversial public art and literally killed its creator.
The sculpture, part of which fell on artist Luis Jimenez and killed him in 2006, cost $300,000, but many residents want it torn down.
Facebook pages have popped up either calling for the mustang’s removal or supporting it. Whenever Denver media does a story on the horse, the comments pages are flooded with contemptuous remarks like one viewer who said the mustang is more appropriate for the cover of a solo album by late-Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio.
Chavez concedes some projects were controversial, but says it wouldn’t be good art if the pieces didn’t spark discourse and discussion. He says he gets many compliments and mostly questions rather than complaints about pieces like the blue mustang.
The city set up a process where proposed pieces go through several commissions, giving as many as 50 residents, artists, designers and other experts a say in what work the city sponsors before the mayor’s final approval.
“Our process is successful because we create a selection panel for any new project,” Chavez said.
Despite the broad community input, Denver’s art ordinance isn’t universally loved by elected representatives. Watchdog.org emailed all Denver city council members to determine their feelings about the ordinance, but only four responded by deadline.
“I am not a fan of the city’s public arts program,” wrote Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz in an email exchange with Watchdog.org. “Early in my tenure on council, I floated an idea to modify or repeal it. We were in the midst of a budget-crippling recession. (But I) couldn’t get traction from my colleagues.”
Faatz wrote that the city’s art program is more expensive than the state’s and 1 percent of large projects can be a huge amount of money to spend. She surveyed her constituents in 2011 about what the city should cut in lean budget times and 65 percent of respondents said art and culture promotions should be first.
METAL MANIA: Taxpayers paid more than $400,000 for these metal rods suspended by cables outside the Museum of Nature and Science.
But outgoing Councilwoman Jeanne Robb said she supports the program and was recently on a panel that picked the art for a new recreation center.
ART DEFENDER: Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb said the public art program is important for Denver.
“I am a staunch supporter of the 1% for public art program,” she wrote, adding she doesn’t believe bond issues should be used to fund affordable housing, which is being floated as the next possible tax increase in Denver. “Denver is a creative class city that very much values art and culture.”
Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann echoed Robb’s support for the program.
Councilman Charlie Brown said he supports the program, though he suggested there might need to be a cap for very large projects.
He also said he doesn’t mind controversial art.
“Public art by its very nature generates controversy, but there’s nothing wrong with controversy — at least it has people talking about art,” he said in a phone interview.
Golyansky bristled at the expenditure of public money, saying in ancient cultures like Greece and Rome that are revered for their art, most projects were funded with private money.
He also dismisses any social benefits of the art, particularly for the art patrons who view the “Lanterns” out the slits of the jail windows on Havana Street.
“Some drug dealer and murder sees some idiot modern art thing, a blue horse, and gets reformed,” Golyansky scoffed. “It’s laughable on the face of it. It’s illogical. It really insults my intelligence to make that kind of argument.”
But Chavez stood by the contention, saying art is often transformative.
“I think that’s pretty spot on,” he said of the artist’s description of the lanterns.
TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD: This $23,000 installation that sits on Colfax Avenue, which Playboy magazine dubbed the wickedest street in America, depicts donuts and bicycle wheels as symbols of Denver’s main street.