Staff Columnist

Is public art an economic development program?

Iowa City loves and supports the arts, but advocates may be overstating their case

Iowa City Block Party guests walk between party events past a mural on the corner of Iowa Ave and Dubuque St. on Saturday, June 23, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
Iowa City Block Party guests walk between party events past a mural on the corner of Iowa Ave and Dubuque St. on Saturday, June 23, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)

Iowa City is pondering the value of public art.

Some local organizers complain the city government has underfunded its public arts budget in recent years. By their calculation, the city’s per capita public art spending has plummeted to about one-seventh of what it was in 1999. Some say that’s contrary to the city’s goals.

“Public art pays dividends every time Iowa City shows up on a top-10 quality of life index, helps achieve complementary city objectives, and improves the real, day to day life of our citizens,” Thomas Agran, a local artist and public art advocate, wrote in a memo to the City Council.

Agran proposed a massive increase in funding under the city’s public art program, from $25,000 to about $140,000. To pay for it, he suggested decreasing the portion of hotel/motel tax revenue going toward police and the parks department.

Advocates made a bold and quantifiable claim in favor of increased public art funding. Agran’s memo suggested that if the city diverted tax dollars away from other priorities and directed them to art projects, the resulting projects would so enliven the local economy that tax revenues would rise and those other spending areas would eventually realize budget gains.

So far, the council has informally agreed to increase public art funding to $50,000 for the next fiscal year, and members signaled a strong interest in making bigger public art commitments in future years.

Art promoters across the world have long sought to tie public art to economic development. The results are wanting, providing little empirical evidence of a strong causal relationship between publicly subsidized visual art and increased economic activity.

The effects are difficult to measure since cities are not controlled experiments, but Iowa City’s recent history provides an interesting counterexample. Public art funding declined at the beginning of this decade, bottoming out at $2,750 in fiscal year 2013. Nevertheless, the city’s hotel/motel tax revenue has increased every year since 2010, climbing from $667,000 to $1.1 million.

Those figures don’t necessarily refute the hypothesis that public art spending has a positive impact on government revenue. Perhaps the local tourism industry would have grown even more quickly if the city had commissioned more murals. But at the very least, it shows increasing public art appropriations is not a necessary condition for attracting hordes of visitors.

Most of the research about public art and economics focuses on arts and culture programing in general, not on visual art pieces like the paintings and sculptures financed by Iowa City’s public arts program. There is persuasive evidence that events and festivals spur measurable economic activity by drawing in visitors.

On that front, the city’s investments are significant. The local government has subsidized FilmScene, the Englert Theatre and Riverside Theatre, to name a few. The city also supports most of the widely attended arts and music festivals throughout the year. And city staff dedicated considerable time and resources to aesthetics and “place-making” throughout their business development and property planning processes.

None of that is accounted for in the city’s public art projects budget, but it is public art spending in a general sense. However, city leaders have made clear they think visual art in public spaces deserves its own sizable budget, separate from all the other cultural programing.

“To me, that’s a little bit apples and oranges. … I view them as two different things,” council member Rockne Cole said during a meeting this month.

There is some interesting hyperlocal analysis about the economic impacts of famous visual art projects, like the Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis and the Cloud Gate “bean” in Chicago. If your city’s installation has the good fortune of becoming a destination for selfie photos, your community can indeed cash in, but that doesn’t hold true for all sculptures in city squares.

Agran, for his part, recently told me economic development should only be part of the motivation. He compared public art to trees — governments can try to gauge the economic impact of runoff prevention and air purification, but they can’t measure its full value with dollars and cents.

“I would argue when we think about trees, we think about art in that same way, there is an economic impact, but there’s also a huge amount of value in the intrinsic way public art informs our space and how we live in it,” Agran told me last week.

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He’s probably right. When it comes to the artistic value of public art, I defer to the artists. I don’t feel qualified to say whether $50,000 or $140,000 is a good investment for the aesthetic quality those dollars would provide.

If public art is valuable for public art’s sake, there’s no need to paint it as an economic development project.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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