The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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The Price of Art

For 20 years the state of Rhode Island has mandated that at least 1 percent of the cost of any new public building be set aside for art.  But with the state continuing  to face massive budget deficits the law has come under fire - with two projects at the Kent County Courthouse at the center of a renewed debate over public funding for art. This week Jim Hummel gets differing perspectives on the program and provides a first-hand look at the art in question.


Click HERE to see a list of RI Art Project expenditures.



Hummel: ``As the General Assembly looks for new ways to close a widening  budget gap, funding for public arts projects is at the center of a renewed debate - just as a new art project makes its debut this week at one local courthouse.''

The Kent County Courthouse - which opened nearly four years ago, has been ground zero for the debate over public art since the debut two years ago of what its creator called  ``a sound sculpture.''

A  system that greets visitors with the recorded chirping of local birds.

Critics dubbed it a `bird machine' and wondered why it cost more than $100,000 to install.

This week: phase two is now complete.  Glass panels that greet visitors as they use elevatorson each of the building's four floors - representing winter, spring, summer and  fall.

Rosenbaum: ``Public art is important, it's extraordinary and it adds to the message that public facilities have to offer.''

Twenty years ago,  the General Assembly passed a bill requiring  that at least 1 percent of the cost of any new or renovated public building be spent on art. That has resulted in nearly two dozen projects at an initial cost to taxpayers of $5 million.

From T.F. Green Airport, to the several projects at the Rhode Island convention center, to state traffic court, to URI. And, of course, the Kent County Courthouse.

Randall Rosenbaum heads the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, which oversees the public art program. He's successfully staved off attempts to cut back on the program - convincing governor Carcieri to restore more than $400,000 he eliminated in next year's budget.

Rosenbaum: ``Since the ancient Greeks,  art has been part of every public structure and  facility. Even in these challenging times, this is  not the only challenging time we've been through,  public art and the aspects of public art have been important parts of state buildings and facilities.''

If art is intended to spark discussion, the projects have certainly achieved their purpose in Kent County, where the bird sounds continue to surprise many first-time visitors  and the new glass panels are positioned in front of the windows coming off each elevator.

The glass project was done by a Jamestown artist a cost of $266,000 - which has also raised a few eyebrows.

Raptakis: ``You've got to keep the cost down. And I just learned that $65,000 per glass panel, close to $260,00. I know the law allows that type of spending that was part of the budget, but at  least cut back.''

State Senator Lou Raptakis was so upset by what he called the bird machine two years ago, he filed a bill to reduce the 1 percent spending requirement on new buildings.

Raptakis: ``Today's economy we have high foreclosure high unemployment, budget deficits. even if we can save a little bit of money here there,  it adds up.''

Rosenbaum: ``These are enormously expensive kinds  of  things to do. It's not like going to Central Falls Glass for  the kind of glass that you put into your house.''

Rosenbaum also maintains that if the 1 percent didn't go toward art it would be spent on other things in the building such as carpet or furniture.  But because it's included in a bond payment, spread over many years, the actual cost to taxpayers is much higher.

Hummel: ``On a bond issue that amount  is almost doubled, or a lot more over the life of the bond.   You're paying a lot more than you would up front. Is that not  correct? Because it's bonded out.''

Rosenbaum: (pause) `` But that's true for every aspect of...''

Hummel: ``But you're saying it's not that much saving, but for the taxpayers over the long's a discussion they're having with pensions right now. Are you going to pay me now or pay me later? ''

Rosenbaum says if you read the law literally the arts council could be putting projects in every single new building, but in consideration of the tough economy, has scaled back and chosen a few high-profile projects.

Rosenbaum: ``State police, for example, saw the inclusion of a statue honoring the state police of past decades - as being a really important thing in their new headquarters building.''

Hummel: ``With all due respect to the state police, how important would they think it is if  you said `alright fellas we're going to pass the hat and you pay for it.' It's easy to say when you have public money - hey, we'd love this or we'd love that.''

Raptakis: ``We're in the great recession right now and why are we spending that type of money and let's see  what else this money could have been put to a better use or returned that money to the project itself.''

And while the public art program has so far survived the governor's budget axe, it  still needs General Assembly approval, in a season where  almost everything is on the table.

Rosenbaum: ``You put a piece of public art in a building. while the rest of the building depreciates, loses its value as it ages, the art appreciates,  it becomes,  if anything more valuable.''

In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel  Report.