News: Charlotte Exclusives

Artful Dodging

Charlotte cannot duck arts-funding fallout

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has put on his art critic hat and his subjects come up lacking. Art projects planned for transit stations and the new downtown arena did not “speak” to McCrory, in the language of the art critic world. Thus Charlotte is about to embark on a whole lot of yelling over art and its place in the public sphere.

“Why should the arts community be the only ones exempt from feedback from the elective representatives of the city of Charlotte?” McCrory wondered at a recent city council meeting.

First, it needs to be said there is absolutely no reason why public projects must have art set-asides built into their contracts as the projects in question do. Public projects would be cheaper without the set-asides, and we wouldn’t have all the strife over spending the money on art — which art? whose art? — either. But the city council has voted otherwise.

So if the money is going to be spent on art projects, the mayor is putting down a marker saying he is going to have a voice in how that money is spent. Now you can argue with McCrory’s taste, but you cannot argue with the principle. Once public money starts flying around, we are all art critics.

This principle, one suspects, is the actual target of criticism directed at McCrory’s own outspoken derision the art projects around town. Once the idea gains traction that with funding comes a legitimate voice and viewpoint, the results will have consequences perhaps even McCrory does not intend.

McCrory’s own art task force is now leaning hard towards recommending some sort of tax hike to help fund the $190 million wish list the local arts community has drawn up. A ticket surcharge, a new tax on downtown parking spaces, a hike in restaurant taxes, or property-tax secured public debt, all have been kicked around as possible sources of funding. Should this come to pass, every single art project funded, even partially with public money, will rightfully be the subject of a full-blown public referendum. There is just no ducking this. To paraphrase Spiderman creator Stan Lee, a great artist himself, with public money comes public responsibilities.

McCrory may foresee this looming squawk-fest and is attempting to establish a “tough on art” track record which he can use to help assure the public that their money will, in fact, be wisely spent on art works local residents can enjoy and cherish. But the atmospherics around this issue do not look good.

Much of the art world is openly hostile to notion that art should be enjoyable, least of all by the uncouth, suburban SUV drivers who might be taxed to pay for it. Indeed, on many levels shock has become the be-all and end-all of modern art, the visual arts especially so. If a piece “challenges” prevailing assumptions and mores, then it “works.” This might be an acceptable, if extremely hollow, definition for privately-commissioned works of art, but it just cannot stand when a broad cross-section of the public is forced to support a work with cold, hard cash.

Working against the shock trend is the practical need for broad support for any particularly large and visible public art project. Here the impulse is not to offend, but to be bland. The result is often watered-down pieces from the hot art movement of the moment, but rarely anything of lasting beauty or impact.

Perhaps some in Charlotte really are spoiling for a pointless, us-versus-them cage-match over the meaning of art in the 21st century. Perhaps others are so well cocooned that they think taxing blue-collar Panther fans to pay for blue-blooded art soirées is only just. Whatever the case, Charlotte cannot long afford a distraction over how best to route tens of millions of dollars toward a mission far outside the proper scope of government.