Bringing the Power of Tithing to Public Art


Now that the holiday season is drawing to a close and the overcast skies and cold weather highlight the hard edges of Goshen's architectural landscape, I’m thinking again about the places where creativity and the built environment meet. And after soliciting ideas and suggestions about ways to emphasize Goshen’s uniqueness—my favorite, which was conveyed to me in person, was spoken in just one word: “Trees”—I thought it might be helpful to point out that as much as art and design get neglected in favor of more “practical” concerns, there is precedent for including funding for art in tandem with new development and redevelopment.

"Percent for Art," which is the practice of setting aside a percentage of construction or renovation costs specifically for art, is not a new concept; it dates back to the New Deal and was instituted to help generate appreciation for the arts while enhancing the look of public buildings.

Predictably, the idea has grown over time. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, there are currently 27 states with active Percent for Art programs, which doesn’t account for similar programs instituted on local levels by city governments. (Needless to say, Indiana is not among those that do.) I'm not sure there could be a clearer sign of the value many communities throughout the country (and world) place on art.

The aforementioned being said, I will be the first to admit that I tend to talk about public art in idealistic terms, belying the challenges it presents. Namely, that art created for everyone is rarely, if ever, reflective of a completely shared aesthetic. Nor is it equally appreciated by all. Just as I eagerly heap praise on "Cloud Gate," there are also works that cause me to scratch my head.

Case in point: My former home of Denver, Colo., boasts the gigantic "Blue Bear" by Lawrence Argent, which is located right outside of the downtown convention center. Given my mixed feelings about it, I am reminded that genuine collaboration, particularly when it comes to installations that reside in public spaces, can be a difficult and tricky business. Love it or hate it, however, "Blue Bear" has become a Denver landmark, making a bold—if not large—statement that will eventually, like other local landmarks and public art, weave itself into the narrative that makes Denver distinct.

Larger cities undoubtedly have more resources to employ and sustain these types of programs. Regardless, the results are impressive, serving as additional evidence of the important role art has played historically, though not anecdotally in some quaint, outdated way. Whether permanent or temporary, public art initiatives have persisted, making history and bringing people together in the process.

So again, while Goshen may not be a Chicago, Philadelphia or Cincinnati, it’s worth imagining future possibilities that could reflect common (though perhaps not unanimous) values, ideals and appreciation for both art and design. Might Goshen have the support, structure and interest to implement our own version of a public art program? We have an alley downtown for the display of public artwork, but what else can we accommodate?

Perhaps part of the answer is more trees. Perhaps part of the answer is neighborhood murals. Perhaps part of the answer involves creating more public spaces that become a destination for people to just hang out, setting up pop-up galleries or developing a more comprehensive wayfinding system. The possibilities, at least when dreaming, are endless.