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Updated: Mayor Opposed to Council Plans to Use Public-Art Funds



After City Council decided this week to gut the public art fund of $2 million, or about two-thirds of its budget, some folks were left wondering whether all the city’s lip service to supporting a creative Richmond was just that.

Mayor Levar Stoney had an answer on Twitter today, putting the ball back in council’s court.

“My budget proposed no cuts or diversion of funds from public arts. I am not pleased with City Council’s proposed amendments and will work to restore these dollars as soon as possible.”

This is after $150,000 was spent on a consulting contract to help develop a public art master plan, which has been languishing for months due to a continually extended "administrative review" on its way to the Planning Commission. Ellen Robertson, the City Council member who raised the use of the public arts fund money, also sits on the commission and was working directly with the public arts commission.

Council took the money not for underfunded public schools, but for capital projects in members’ districts such as street paving and sidewalk and playground improvements. This move came after the council rejected a cigarette tax this week, keeping Richmond one of the few cities in the state without one, with some council members arguing that the schools need a fully-funded and comprehensive plan.

According to a representative with the city, the only art project currently under contract is the Hull Street Library with muralist Mickael Broth for $51,000. Once the public art master plan was adopted, the plan was to pool the funding to be more equally distributed throughout the city. There are at least 15 projects pending.

"You can’t overstate the value of public art and I believe in the value of public art," says 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who had pushed to leave half of the money in the arts fund, but went along with the majority. "I also believe that if our roads are causing people to damage their cars, and our sidewalks are causing people to be injured and we’re paying claims out, if sidewalks aren’t clear pathways for the arts walk then there’d be no arts walk. So I think you can’t say one is more important than the other."

Gray added that the council "hasn’t had the most collaborative and cooperative tone from the part of the mayor and his administration."

Sara Cunningham, chairwoman of the public arts commission, doesn't think its a wise idea for the city to portray itself as disinvesting in creative capital and tourism.

"One would hope this is an extraordinary circumstance and that the [1 percent for the arts] ordinance is strong enough that, in fact, it's not considered a slush fund," she says. "I think we need to have conversations about the ordinance. The city's lawyer is reading in favor of the council using it."

Cunningham notes that without funds, she cannot get matching grants.

"It's very shortsighted thinking by the city," she says. "We're not a city who thinks of leveraging assets. There's a massive field of creative place-making."

The Maggie Walker memorial statue was just one successful public art work financed by the ordinance. The statue sits near Max's on Broad restaurant, which is entering its fifth year.

"We do see a great added value to the neighborhood," says chief operating officer Liz Kincaid by email. "Her presence increases the walkability, beauty and enriches us as a community. Guests really love the statue and locals and tourists alike spend a great deal of time in the plaza."

Scott Garka, president of CultureWorks, says he hopes the city will work with the public art commission to advance the public art master plan.

"Public art is a vital part of a thriving arts and culture scene and the city's branding," he says, noting a study his group conducted in 2016 with Americans for the Arts that found that 83 nonprofit arts and culture organizations were responsible for a $360.1 million economic impact in the Richmond and tri-city region. "Richmond has an average of three public art projects a year. Austin has 45. Norfolk has five to 11. Portland has 35."

While some might look at a public art project like the $200,000 commission for 17-foot-tall rings installed along the riverfront as wasteful, Garka notes that the rings are part of a bigger idea connecting two parts of the city that has not fully been completed.

"Whatever happens with the Monument Avenue commission, we need new public art telling the story of our citizens now that will be there in 100 years," Cunningham adds. "We should have the right to tell our story now, today."

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