The revolt was small, but not insignificant.
Monday night, Cedar Rapids Superintendent Dave Benson urged the School Board to spend $57,000 on an art installation for the atrium of the new administration building. He explained that it would be paid for with SILO tax dollars already budgeted for the construction of the building.
A volunteer committee received dozens of proposals before selecting Pennsylvania artist Talley Fisher’s plan: a hanging sculpture made from powder-coated anodized aluminum. Backers said the project would contain educational components, such as elementary curriculum and possible roles for older students in its installation.
But three board members held up stop signs.
Nancy Humbles questioned the timing. It’s been just six months since budget woes forced the district to close schools. Allan Witt was on the same page, arguing that “the money could be better spent.”
Keith Westercamp wondered why a local artist didn’t get the job. “Grant Wood was a teacher in this district,” Westercamp said. “I’m a little bit concerned that we aren’t picking someone from the local community.”
He also questioned whether a district that already owns $16 million worth of art could, perhaps, tap its own collection.
Benson implored the board to approve the purchase. “The fact is, the district has a long, historic, positive interrelationship with the arts,” he said. But Westercamp moved to table the proposal. His motion passed unanimously.
It’s not a big issue or big bucks. And the board may go along, in the end. But for those of us waiting to see a more assertive board question, rather than rubber-stamp, administrative ideas, it was a good sign.
And the idea does raise some red flags. A district with a very long list of building needs, and that has said in its budget plan it would spend SILO bucks on “infrastructure needs, property tax relief, and technology for classrooms,” really has no business spending those dollars on decorating its headquarters. Public art is important, but government accountability is more important.
Why not try a private fundraising effort? Or sell some older art in storage to pay for the prominent new piece.
The core of the district’s proud arts history is its strong ties to local artist/educators who made their mark on both this community and the larger world. I’m not sure how hiring a Pennsylvania artist fits into that legacy. Giving district educators and students, current or former, a crack at the project would better fit the district’s mission.
Six months after Polk, and four months before lobbying lawmakers for more resources, is a lousy time to go art shopping. But it’s the good time for the board to, finally, apply the brakes.