Sunday, April 24, 2011

Government incompetence? No. Just taking care of their artsy base at taxpayer expense.

Josh Brodesky: City to spend $590,000 for 8 artsy streetcar stops

Josh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star

The modern streetcar will one day flow from University Medical Center to the west side. But there's a little different flow going on right now - money to a select group of artists who have been hired to dress up eight of 17 planned streetcar stops.

What will the projects look like?

We don't know.

That's because the city and the RTA chose to pay $590,000 for art at eight shelters along the route, even though the artists never submitted designs for what they might create. That's $73,750 a pop for the artsy dressing - not including the cost of architecture or engineering.

Try not to fall out of your chair.

All told, $765,000 will be spent on public art for the 3.9-mile route, which reflects the city's policy of spending 1 percent of construction costs on public art. Streetcar construction is pegged at $75 million, so the public art requirement is $750,000.

Fine. We all want a stylish streetcar line. But where the train jumps the tracks is how the money is being divvied up.

The streetcar route has 17 stops, which officials have split into two groups. There are nine "simple stops," adorned with just electronic poetry boards scrolling digital verse, at maybe a line at a time, like a stock ticker.

And there are eight "unique stops," which are getting the $73,750 treatment.

This in a town that can't afford to put bus shelters on the streets for people who actually need public transit. A town that lets young mothers bake in the sun, and elderly riders soak in the rain.

Neither the city nor the RTA, which are co-managing the streetcar project, had much to say about these high-priced artistic shelters. The RTA kicked the can to the city, which in turn kicked it over to Tucson Pima Arts Council, which awarded the contracts.

"We don't get that micro-involved in the actual art selection," RTA spokesman David Joseph told me. "We are looking for on time and on budget. That's our focus."

He meant that to be comforting.

Jim Glock, the city's transportation director, said his department defers to the Tucson Pima Arts Council on artistic matters. Never trust an engineer with art.

"We are actively involved, but we look to them for expertise with respect to how to package a call for artists," Glock said. "When we are looking for public art opportunities for the streetcar, clearly the stops surface as probably the most visible or noticeable portion."

Agreed. So why not spread the $750,000 around to all 17 shelters? That would still mean a little more than $44,000 for art at each streetcar stop, which seems like plenty of dough.

After all, back in 1998, the city built five artsy bus shelters for $15,000 each. Adjusted for inflation, those would cost $20,564 each today. That's for the shelter and the art. Certainly, there are plenty of artists in and around Tucson (and beyond) who would welcome such a commission.

But the train has already left the station on that one.

Mary Ellen Wooten, public art program manager for Tucson Pima Arts Council, said the decision to spend big was made a long time ago. The selection panel looked at light rail in Phoenix, where about $200,000 was spent on art at each of several metro stops. Since our stops will be about a third the size of the Phoenix stops, she said, the cost here should be about a third.

Wooten said TPAC wasn't just buying blind. She said the artists provided a selection panel with résumés, statements of interest and eight images of previous work. In the end the panel chose a mix of local and out-of-towners for the gigs.

"We are actually hoping to have the artist designs completed over the summer," she said.

So that's where things stand: $590,000 for eight shelter stops that have yet to be designed.

One of the big artistic themes with the streetcar is flow.

It's the driving concept for local artists Simon Donovon and Ben Olmstead, who hatched the scrolling poetry readers for the simple stops and are also doing art for a unique stop near the Poetry Center and for the maintenance yard. Streetcars flow and so do words (and so does money).

"The poems will be ever changing, with local poets, children's poetry and international poetry featured," Donovan wrote in an email. "The Poetry Center will be responsible for curating and programming the content. This is a poetry town."

It's also a mismanaged one. And soon we'll have the art to show it.

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