Cedar Rapids is considering spending up to $100,000 for a signature public art display in the city-owned DoubleTree Hotel.
If approved, “Portrait of Iowa” by Seattle-based artist John Fleming would be placed in the foyer of the hotel’s convention center, visible to passersby on the street.
The Gazette editorial board is firmly supportive of public art projects, and of the citizen-led process for selecting artwork through the Visual Arts Commission. We do not object to the “Portraits of Iowa” display.
Still, the city’s impending decision to spend such a large sum for an out-of-state artists’ installation gives the community an opportunity to reassess where our values lie when it comes to promoting the arts.
Cedar Rapids has demonstrated strong support for local artists in the past. Many of the pieces displayed around town were completed by artists with Iowa connections. But how much we’re willing to pay for public art raises questions.
For a separate project, the Visual Arts Commission is currently seeking proposals to be displayed on large panels in a pocket plaza on Second Street SE, between Third and Second avenues. The city will select one artist to fill all nine panels, with $1,500 going to the selected artist.
The disparity is striking — six figures to a coastal architect whose portfolio largely revolves around the northwest, and relative pennies to a creator who lives and works among us. The uncomfortable implication here is that painters, designers and photographers from our own community are worth about 1.5 percent as much as their out-of-state peers.
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Mid-size cities in our region have an unfortunate habit of commissioning acclaimed artists from other states or countries to install expensive public displays. Perhaps this stems from a sense of Midwestern insecurity, the idea that we need big-city names in order to show how cultured we are.
That mentality is hogwash. Iowa artists can and should be tapped for world-class art projects.
City leaders also should be mindful of where they place public art projects. Among about 50 public art projects cataloged on the Visual Arts Commission’s webpage, about half are centrally located downtown, most of the others are in nearby neighborhoods and relatively few are in outlying areas.
For people who live or work there, it can be easy to forget that downtown is not the nexus of civic life for all Cedar Rapidians. People who can’t or choose not to frequent downtown still deserve to enjoy the spoils of the city government’s public art investments.
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