Oct 022007

A Percent for Art? How come governments are now treating artists (narrowly defined) as a privileged aristocracy?

From the WSJ:

When Yahoo moved into its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters six years ago, it kept peace with local authorities by buying and installing $500,000 worth of public artworks.

Now Yahoo says it is suffering for its art.

On its front lawn, the technology giant installed a work by New York artist Sharon Louden that paired real wetlands grass with artificial cattail-like reeds. The grass grew. The city complained. Last year, to rein in its overgrown yard, Yahoo dispatched a grounds crew with weed whackers.

Artificial reeds were cut, bent and twisted. The artist, horrified, responded with letters from her lawyers, which were met with letters from Yahoo’s lawyers. “They turned my art into a bad miniature golf course,” Ms. Louden says.

As negotiations continue over who controls Yahoo’s front yard, the company has found itself caught at the intersection of two artist-friendly laws — one that made the company install art, and a second that essentially prohibits the company from messing with it.

Like Sunnyvale, many cities across the U.S. have embraced the “Percent for Art” movement. Typically, cities ask or require companies to allocate 1% of their construction budget to buying and prominently displaying art, often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land.

If Yahoo wants to be foolish with its money, that’s it’s own business. But is it proper for governments to be skimming money off of projects to divert to some of their favorites?

But it’s more than just a matter of fiscal responsibility and fairness. Consider this quote:

The governors of men have always made use of painting and sculpture in order to inspire in their subjects the religious or political sentiments they desire them to hold. –Diderot

I’ll bet that holds true for lawn sculpture as well.

I’ve long advocated Separation of Arts and State for the same reason that we have Separation of Church and State.