Keeper of the Plans

No more ugly buildings: proposal would require major city projects to include artists

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Wichita was abuzz with public art.

Major new projects were completed seemingly every year, and some of Wichita’s most recognizable public art to this day was created during that time.

But somewhere along the way, that momentum slowed.

Arts advocates in Wichita will present a proposed city ordinance at a Council Workshop on Tuesday that they hope will pave the way for more public art in town and put the kibosh on ugly public buildings.

The ordinance would set aside a flat 1 percent of the city’s capital-improvement project budget for that fiscal year and earmark it for public art projects.

If the council approves the ordinance — known as a “percent-for-art ordinance” — Wichita would join more than 350 other cities across the nation who already have similar rules on the books — and, in some cases, have had them since the 1960s.

“We care about our city and we want Wichita to be a cut above — a wonderful, impressive and beautiful place,” said Patricia McDonnell, director of the Wichita Art Museum. She, with a sizable group of local artists and designers, crafted the proposed ordinance based on what other cities have passed.

“By having art integrated into our buildings and out in our plazas and our sidewalks, we demonstrate both to ourselves and to all the people who come to visit us that we invest in our city.”

Why the ordinance

“Public art” is a broad-encompassing term, generally referring to art that has been built, cast, carved or otherwise placed in a public setting.

The Association for Public Art, a national nonprofit dedicated to the subject, says it “can express community values, enhance our environment, transform a landscape, heighten our awareness, or question our assumptions.”

It’s like a museum or an exhibition with no walls and no opening or closing hours — art for everyone.

Local artist Kent Williams uses the phrase interchangeably with “very successful placemaking.”

Think the splash pad and plaza at Old Town Square, the concrete bas-relief sculptures on the East Kellogg underpass, the circle of pastel-glowing pillars at Central and McLean, or even the Redbud bike path through east Wichita.

All of those projects were designed by artists or other design professionals in part to beautify the city.

“This isn’t really anything new — the city has a great tradition and legacy of beautiful places,” said Williams, who helped draft the ordinance. “What we’re really hoping to do is just add structure and mechanisms by which to be more efficient with these kinds of beautifications and placemaking and public art efforts.”

In 1999 — while noted art-lover Chris Cherches was city manager — the City Council passed an “administrative recommendation” that significant public projects should have 1 percent of their budgets set aside for public art.

That recommendation was never codified into city ordinance, however, which meant it was never a hard-and-fast rule.

Just recently, the city’s initial request-for-proposals to build a new multimillion-dollar downtown baseball stadium made no mention of a requirement for art or aesthetics, said artist Elizabeth Stevenson, who has since been added to the project as a design consultant.

The ordinance would ensure that similar public projects must factor art and design elements into their budgets.

Currently, the Design Council — a citizen group — makes recommendations to the City Council about integrating art into public projects, but those recommendations aren’t always accepted, Stevenson said.

She cited the city’s Aquatics Master Plan as an example of this.

The Design Council had originally recommended 10 percent of the project’s budget go toward the design of the splash pads the city intends to build — but when the plan was officially presented, that 10 percent was nowhere to be found.

Sometimes the funding that’s recommended isn’t always available, said John D’Angelo, the city’s Director of Arts and Cultural Services.

Because each project’s aesthetics funding comes on a case-by-case basis and doesn’t come from a pre-existing pool of money, “we have to figure out ... where that administrative money is coming from or go look for money elsewhere, which is always a challenge,” D’Angelo said.

Twenty-five states, including Nebraska, have percent-for-art programs on the state level.

Since starting its 1-percent-for-art program in 2009, Oklahoma City has added dozens of murals, sculptures and other large-scale works of art all across the city.

Kansas City has had its own percent-for-art program in effect since 1986.

Hutchinson also has had a percent-for-art ordinance on the books for the past four years.

“In a lot of ways, as it is often in Wichita, we’re playing a bit of catch-up to other cities,” said Ty Tabing, a consultant and member of the group that drafted the ordinance. “I think this is something that could really pay dividends in the future in terms of making Wichita more attractive to people who already live here and people considering moving here.”

How to get ‘the best design’

So why should our tax dollars be going to this fancy-schmancy art, anyway?

Wouldn’t the money be better used for more practical things like street repair, keeping public swimming pools open, buying new fire trucks or lowering taxes?

Art advocates believe that public art projects can spur economic development while making Wichita a generally more pleasant place to live.

Sonia Greteman, past Design Council president and current owner of the Greteman Group creative agency, said she thinks committing to public art in Wichita “will do more for our landscape and our brand than a lot of other things we’re doing.”

“We know public art really does provide a positive impact on a community,” Greteman said. “It invigorates the public cultural environment and it develops and enhances public interest in the visual arts.”

If the ordinance is passed, it will ensure that, on all major public projects, an artist or design team will be retained early to help shape them.

That collaboration — artists working alongside construction teams, engineers, architects and others — ensures those projects are as impactful as they can possibly be, McDonnell said.

“There’s a point in the process where, bringing an artist on board, you are able to identify the opportunities for ... the best design,” said McDonnell, who was a leader of the group pushing for the ordinance. “It’s not that an architect doesn’t come up with that. When you have smart brains from different perspectives working together on a problem, it gets better.”

Take, for example, the pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River at Central and McLean.

The city needed to install a water line there and also accommodate a potential bridge over the river at some point.

Williams, the Fisch Haus artist, was brought into the project and together with the city, he helped design an arching and tubular pedestrian bridge alongside the 4-foot-in-diameter stark-red water line.

Previous bridge designs involved steel walls to hide the pipe that also blocked the river views, Williams said; the final design embraces the pipe and provides an elegant solution to the problem.

“It’s solving problems that are both technical and aesthetic at the same time,” he said. “You can do both of those things when the design professional is involved early.

“We would hope that successes like that are easier to achieve with a little more formalized process like the one the ordinance is working toward.”

The independent committee of arts advocates that drafted and will present the ordinance includes former councilwoman Sharon Fearey, Arts Council board member Arlen Hamilton, grantwriter Connie Bonfy, LK Architecture’s Jeff Best, Philip Meyer of Baughman Co., Williams, Stevenson, Tabing, McDonnell and others.

The workshop is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the first-floor board room at City Hall. The ordinance could eventually make its way to the council, which will have the final say whether it gets added to city code.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.