‘Councilman Cheese Grater’ Takes Aim at Public Art Funding

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) challenges the way public art is funded in San Antonio.

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) has a simple opinion about art he doesn’t like.

“I just don’t get it,” he has told colleagues during budget and bond discussions.

The most confusing piece of public art, to him, is the 30-foot-tall sculpture that was installed in the Convention Center’s new main lobby in January 2016. The City paid $1 million for the interactive piece by London-based artist Jason Bruges.

“I have yet to have a human being tell me they like the art in the Convention Center,” Krier said during a Council briefing session on Wednesday, March 1. “Every time [I walk by] I look up, waiting for it to do something.”

Liquid Crystal, by London-based artist Jason Bruges, stands tall in the Convention Center lobby.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Liquid Crystal, a sculpture by London-based artist Jason Bruges, stands tall in the Convention Center lobby.

Krier vowed to file a Council Consideration Request (CCR) that calls for a re-evaluation of how the City pays for public art and selects artists. He’d like to see less taxpayer dollars go to public art and what’s left go to local, or at least Texan, artists.

“Thank you, Councilman Cheese Grater — excuse me, Councilman Krier,” quipped Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) earlier this month. “I really do like this idea of saying, ‘Let’s look locally [for artists] first.'”

The sculpture, Liquid Crystal, is made up of 3,500 LCD panels that change color by reacting to people moving around it. Krier commonly refers to it as “the cheese grater.” The more movement, the more the sculpture reacts. But when the sculpture was unveiled during the grand opening of the Convention Center expansion – it was surrounded by people who stood still. An awkward pause preceded applause as the sculpture seemed static, unmoved.

An ordinance approved by City Council in 2011 requires that 1% of every capital improvement project budget in the city be dedicated to public art that relates to the project or site. The City’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, paid by visitors, funded the $325 million Convention Center renovation.

Each bond project category – parks, streets, facilities, drainage, and neighborhood improvements – also includes 1% for public art. This year’s $850 million bond package includes $8.5 million set aside for art.

Krier wants to remove that 1% art requirement from some, if not all bond categories. He will circulate his CCR to fellow Council members this afternoon and over the weekend, Krier said Thursday, while Council considered approving a list of pre-qualified artists that could receive public funding.

The ordinance, which will allow 104 artists – 82 Texans and 35 artists from 14 states – to apply for commission work in San Antonio, was approved. Krier abstained and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) had left the room during the vote. This doesn’t prevent the City from considering artists not on the list, but their work would have to be approved by a separate Council action.

The Department of Arts and Culture already has programming that emphasizes support of local artists, Director Debbie Racca-Sittre told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, and weaving the work of national and international artists into the city’s fabric of public art plays a large role in that support. Lists of pre-qualified local fabricators, installers, suppliers, and collaborative partners also were approved on Thursday, with which the City encourages all artists to work.

“When a San Antonian artist goes to New York and does a piece and brings that experience back – that’s something you don’t get if you close your doors to other communities,” Racca-Sittre said. In other words, if San Antonio is closed to “outside” artists, then why would other cities be open to ours?

San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre gives a presentation to City Council about the selection process for artists applying for public art projects.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre gives a presentation to City Council about the selection process for artists applying for public art projects.

About 70% of the art funding in the 2007 and 2012 bonds went to art projects by local talent, Racca-Sittre said, and the department has recently modified how the process is structured to make sure that emerging, mid-career, and established artists from all over are competing against their peers.

It’s now a process that focuses on ensuring a “level playing field” for local artists, she said.

Of the 77 art projects commissioned since 2007, City Manager Sheryl Sculley told City Council, 78% were with local artists.

But even when a non-local artist is commissioned, they often work with local engineers, fabricators, and installers. Liquid Crystal‘s budget, for instance, included money for other design and engineering services. City staff provided this budget breakdown:

  • London-based artist Jason Bruges (design, fabrication, installation): $987,500
  • Local firm Zachry (foundation for sculpture): $37,188
  • Local firm Marmon Mok (additional design services): $27,766
  • Local firm CalTex (installation of base and steel frame): $21,225
  • Total: $1,073,679

So 100% of project funds aren’t necessary being “shipped to London” or other cities, Racca-Sittre said. “[That’s] not telling the whole story.”

Future art project funding breakdowns will be required so that people can see the true value of funding national and international artists’ work.

On Thursday, Krier provided several other examples of public art in his district that he just doesn’t “get” including Sotol Duet at Panther Springs Park (“That ain’t art to me.”) and El Bosque at Encino Branch Library. Both artists are from out of state.

Public art sculptures called "Sotol Duet."Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The public art sculpture Sotol Duet at Panther Springs Park.

“You don’t have to sell me on the value of the arts to the community,” Krier said, “but we ought to ask staff to take a look at the [1% funding] ordinance backing this up … for example by limiting it to Texas artists.”

Arts Commission Chair Guillermo Nicolas said he respected Krier’s opinions about fiscal responsibility and his taste in art, but assured him that the money is not being misused in any way.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

El Bosque at SAPL’s Encino Branch Library.

“International and local artists are crucial to our cultures and our civilization,” Nicolas said. “Cross-pollination of artist ideas from San Antonio to New York [and elsewhere] are crucial to creativity and to the betterment of the community.”

Art is, by its very nature, subjective, Nicolas said, and “if we close our doors to outside artists, other cities will begin to close their doors to us.”

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) compared the process of selecting local versus non-local artists to that of selecting architecture, engineering, and design firms.

The Hardberger Park land bridge and the Frost Bank tower, Warrick said, were both designed by internationally renowned firms. While their fees “leave the city,” San Antonio benefits from their skill and name recognition.

Most Council members, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, were open to at least having the conversation about art funding.

“We need to have additional dialogue on this,” Taylor said. “[There is] certainly nothing wrong with us looking to improve the process and the outcome.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who routinely tangles with Krier on matters of public art, relayed several opinions about the importance of public art that he collected while visiting Josué Romero, the immigrant student recently released from ICE, at the Southwest School of Art.

“Art is life, it brings people together especially in hard times. It is a way to share and communicate, and educate the community,” stated Romero.

Other statements outlined the inspirational power that art can have on young, vulnerable lives. Those remarks can be downloaded here.

Krier will need five signatures of support from Council members before he can formally move forward on the issue.

“I think, philosophically, the City should not pay for public art with San Antonio property taxes and sales tax dollars,” Krier told the Rivard Report Thursday afternoon.

He thinks San Antonians would agree – that if the art allocations in the bond were separated out into its own category, that citizens would vote down $8.5 million for public art.

“Part of what I’m trying to do here is to get everybody to talk about it and make sure everybody is comfortable with the process and sources of the money,” he said.

Once this conversation takes place with Council and the community, said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), the conclusion will likely be the same as it was in 2011 when the “hard-fought over” funding policy was established.

“If we had the position that all of the public funds on arts should be contained within the city of San Antonio, and you imagine that cities around the world and around the country had that same position, how isolated we would feel from the arts and cultural community and the vibrancy that is so evident from having an increasingly connected world,” said Nirenberg, who is running for mayor in the May 6 election. “That’s not the world I want to live in.”

10 thoughts on “‘Councilman Cheese Grater’ Takes Aim at Public Art Funding

  1. “If San Antonio is closed to ‘outside’ artists, then why would other cities be open to ours?”

    I think Debbie hit the nail on the head with this question. We have, for too long, promoted this idea that “born-and-raised” is somehow superior to people, ideas, and innovations that come from other communities. Part of what makes America truly great is the diversity with which we are blessed. We are not made great by closing our minds or our doors to others. And, if art is an expression of human emotions and experiences, then by one saying that only San Antonio or Texas art matters, we are effectively saying that only people of San Antonio or Texas matter. And, as Nirenberg stated above, “that’s not the world I want to live in.”

  2. I’m all in favor of art of any kind and I’m equally a fan of tacos and beer. But if I see one more local artwork based on tacos or beer imagery, well, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I know “you are what you eat,” but, come on, SA artists, find some other cultural artifacts for inspiration.

  3. “If we had the position that all of the public funds on arts should be contained within the city of San Antonio, and you imagine that cities around the world and around the country had that same position, how isolated we would feel from the arts and cultural community and the vibrancy that is so evident from having an increasingly connected world,” said Ron Nirenberg, who is running for mayor in the May 6 election. “That’s not the world I want to live in.”

    Dear Ron Nirenberg, City Council members, and those in favor of public arts funding in San Antonio:

    This isn’t 1917. It’s 2017– the age of the Internet.

    San Antonian artists and appreciators from around the world connect, engage, and organize creative endeavors with the international arts community on a daily basis in powerful ways without the help of government.

    Just last night, I saw an incredible band from France perform one of the best sets I’ve ever seen at a local establishment. Dozens more bands from around the world will be pouring into San Antonio for shows and events this next week and throughout the year. I’ve seen art pieces, paintings, sculptures, films, etc from artists from all corners of the globe here in San Antonio just in the past three months. Vice versa, I’ve seen San Antonians engaging others nationally and internationally through many of those mediums.

    The truth is San Antonio is bursting at the seems with art and creativity via voluntary person to person co-operation and private funding between individuals and communities from all over . If and when public funding for the arts in San Antonio disappears, the artistic community will not become more “isolated”– as Ron Nirenberg insinuates– as its immersion with the global community is simply not interlinked with the government in and of itself or whatever art project it decides to allocate its resources taken from the community to or not. Respectfully, it’s simply absurd to even suggest that.

    I would encourage you to set aside this back and forth of whether or not to keep public art funding 100% local. The heart of the issue is that city government as a whole must first justify its notion that taking an arbitrary cut from the sales of hardworking San Antonians (especially local artists) to throw at various art productions, commissions, and projects like the $1 million dollar sculpture in (regardless of how much went to the UK or not) serves San Antonio in the most effective, efficient, and helpful way possible. Furthermore, it should be able to explain and be prepared to defend its logic behind the attribution of value to any given arts project while simultaneously weighing such funding against the deficiencies in local school systems that remain prevalent, local roads that seemingly require the use of 4×4 SUVs to effectively navigate, and a myriad of other basic necessities that continue to be ignored or inadequately met.

    The fact this debate about whether or not a $1million dollar sculpture was justified and whether to keep art funding purely local in the future is truly symbolic of why these aforementioned needs and problems still exist and go unsolved in arenas like education because it conveys how out of step the government’s priorities are from the reality. It’s an unnecessary distraction that fails to take into account the basic needs of the majority of San Antonio’s population.

    Of course all of this is not an argument against the amazing arts community in San Antonio, to be clear. On the contrary it is in argument support of ending the immoral and perverse allocation of resources stripped from hardworking artists and industry professionals to a select few others via bureaucratic and cronysitic mechanisms. Whether the recipients of these resources are local, national, or international is thus of little to no consequence. Though I admit, it seems highly unscrupulous to take money from local artists and send it outside of the city, and doing so while preaching the need to develop local arts with such resources is hypocrisy of the highest order.

    It’s not just funding stripped from artists, however.

    This notion applies to resources taken from all of San Antonio’s citizens, and especially from members of the community further down the socio-economic-ladder who contribute to such art funding with or without their consent simply through their purchases. Simply put– funding unnecessary, expensive, and questionably tasteful art projects with financial resources ripped out of the artistic community does not help while diverting limited resources away from more important needs like education. That is not a San Antonio I want to live in.

    Trust San Antonians to continue to build bridges with creative abroad and a diverse, amazing, and flourishing arts community at home with their own energy, time, and funding. Encourage your fellow citizens to do the same. That combination is what will continue to build value, market, and sell the San Antonio arts community– not a group of government officials armed with debatable tastes and the public’s money.

  4. It’s interesting that Mr. Krier says he hasn’t met anyone telling him they like the sculpture in the Convention Center. (Furthermore, he DOESN’T say that he has ever met anyone complaining about it, either.) Few local citizens ever enter the convention center, since most of the participants in activities there are from outside San Antonio. I recently went to an international conference there. It was my first visit to the “new” convention center. I remember seeing that sculpture and LIKING it!! Mr. Krier hasn’t talked to me, though.

  5. This article mostly left me wondering what will happen to that $1,000,000+ cheese grater when then LCD panels start burning out in the next five or ten years. How many LCD panels have to crap out before someone has the balls to suggest hauling it to the recycle yard. I’m going to venture the guess of at least 25%. I’ll further speculate that 60% will be burned out by the time approval is granted to haul it away. It probably won’t look like a million bucks when only every other LCD panel is operational, and of course it won’t be an equal distribution.

    Anyways, a quick query of “Jason Bruges liquid crystal” confirms that no one outside of San Antonio is now or has ever (save Bruges himself) cared about this piece of art. That being the case, had we granted a local artist the commission we would in fact not have been shunned by the international art community. Not only do they not give a rat’s ass about this piece of art, but there also isn’t anyone keeping a score card of what cities are paying for corporate style art.

    I will say though that I do like the conceptual drawings for the giant head thing proposed for the San Pedro Creek project. Although it could use a couple of giant hands, maybe one holding a cold beer and the other holding a giant taco. Maybe we can sell Liquid Crystal Grater to make that happen.

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