Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 20

Art, as we all know, is subjective. Passing judgment on a piece of art will always generate some controversy, and this is not the purview of the editorial board.

When a city considers committing public funds to the development of art, though, this becomes an action of acute interest. The Iowa City Council came to a stalemate in a vote on appropriating $50,000 to raise funds for “The Lens,” an art installation for the Downtown District designed by Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor. Whatever one’s personal feelings on the sculpture may be — and if letters to the paper are any indication, opinion is heated — the question of public funding for a project like this one is important.

On the broader topic of public art, there can be no doubt that municipal funding of art projects should be cultivated. Putting money toward the advancement of art is a noble goal, and one governments should keep in mind when allocating budgets. But for a project like “The Lens,” a piece that had been expected to find support via private fundraising, soliciting aid from the city is an odd move.

Raising money isn’t as simple as opening a lemonade stand. For an amount of this magnitude, soliciting professional help makes perfect sense, and the discounted rate brought before the council made the municipal funding proposal as sweet a deal as possible. Yet when it came to a vote, the council could not come to a majority opinion. This was, in part, because the request for public financial assistance was not made at the beginning of the process, council member Rockne Cole said.

With lean budgets projected for the future, allocating this amount to what had previously been a private project seems a poor use of limited funds. Though we are enthusiastic supporters of the arts and culture, and encourage continued support for organizations like Summer of the Arts, this is one situation where prudence should win out.

Backers of “The Lens” have argued the art piece is complemented by needed improvements to the Ped Mall area, and lack of support from city government might halt these infrastructure upgrades. While it may be true these renovations were meant to go along with the art project, they should not be hamstrung by the protracted debate over the sculpture. If these changes are necessary, it isn’t out of the question to revamp and re-imagine the concept to fit a new project, or a space without “The Lens.”

If the fundraising can get started without the city’s backing, perhaps at a later date proponents can again bring a request to council. No doubt there would be keener interest in a contribution after it’s been proven the sculpture has some base of support in the community.

Because the voting came to a standstill at last meeting, there remains the possibility the issue will be brought up again when all of council is present. If this does happen, the best course of action would be for the council to repeat itself: to say “no” to the proposal. Surely there are better uses of public money, and surely the planned methods of fundraising could have been better articulated, so the council would have been more informed of expectations.

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