Is it time for a percent-for-art reboot?

Bills would push for restoration of public art mandate

NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO, when the new Porter Square Station on the MBTA’s Red Line opened, it meant more than just access to rapid transit for thousands of North Cambridge residents. The embedding of sculptures of bronzed winter gloves on the station floor and alongside its escalators made a bold statement about the value of incorporating art into big infrastructure projects.

The creative flourishes at the Cambridge station and two other new Red Line stops opened in the early 1980s served as a national model for public art. But Massachusetts has shown an on-again, off-again commitment to the effort in the years since, with other states taking our place in the public art vanguard. Now state lawmakers are looking to reboot a program that would mandate taxpayer dollars for public art in state-owned properties and backers think, despite the potential cost, they may succeed in bringing back culture to the masses.

“We always think of ourselves in Massachusetts as very progressive,” said state Rep. Mary Keefe of Worcester, an art educator and sponsor of a House bill to earmark state money for art projects. “Public art is about creative placemaking. There’s new energy around our cities and this is happening at the same time that, economically, we’re in a good place to move forward. There is a bit of a renaissance happening.”

Keefe’s bill and a similar one filed by state Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield would mandate 1 percent of capital projects funded by the state be set aside for public arts projects. The bills are similar to so-called “Percent for Art” laws in 27 other states, including all five other New England states. The Massachusetts bills, which have more than 40 sponsors on both sides of the aisle, would create a nine-member commission of state and local officials and members of the arts community to determine what projects receive funding. Both measures have been reported out favorably by the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development and are now awaiting action in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The effort is not without questions and controversy. At the end of his second term, in 2014, former Gov. Deval Patrick issued an executive order earmarking up to $250,000 for art projects in each renovation or new construction project on a state-owned building in Boston and the state’s Gateway Cities. That order was codified into state law the following year by the Legislature, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who said restricting art funding to those cities left other priorities in other areas wanting. He also expressed concern that determining what art projects were appropriate for purchase with public dollars could be problematic.

A glove at the top of an escalator at Porter Station is part of Mags Harries’s installation “The Glove Cycle.” (Photo by Jack Sullivan)

A number of other legislative attempts to ensure funding for public art died over recent years, often based on criticism that scarce state dollars are better spent on more pressing needs. Prior bills have placed a cap on how much can be spent on public art, but the two current bills have no such language, potentially running the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Greg Sullivan, research director at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, said the concept of art in public places paid for by taxpayer dollars is laudable but, with no cap, could cause backlash. With the state’s current five-year capital spending plan authorizing more than $18 billion in potential projects, he pointed out that earmarking 1 percent for art would mean $180 million in those projects alone.

“The sentiment behind the bill would say ‘let’s not forget about art in public facilities,’” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a good idea. Art is often forgotten with all the problems we have. It’s very well-intended, but the scale of what they are talking about, it’s plucked out of thin air. One percent doesn’t sound like a lot but when you multiply it by 18 billion, it is a lot. An awful lot.”

Sullivan, a former state inspector general, was a state representative during one of the first controversies over earmarked public monies for art. In 1988, when the State House underwent major renovations, a New York sculptor was tapped to make a clock that now hangs in the Great Hall. The 15-foot, one-ton timepiece, reminiscent of town hall and church tower clocks throughout New England, was panned when it was unveiled in 1990. One of the chief complaints was its $100,000 price tag at a time when the state budget was reeling from a recession.

“The aftereffect of proposals like this, all you have to do is look at the clock,” said Sullivan, who described it as “ugly,” out of character for the State House, and a waste of money. “There should be a place in the design and procurement process for public facilities for proposals for artwork, but they should be on a case by case basis. If you tell them they must spend the money, they wind up with another clock.”

Backers of the legislation say they’re trying to restore the state’s position as a leader in the public art effort. When the MBTA began work to extend the Red Line into northern Cambridge and Somerville in the 1970s, it earmarked nearly $700,000 for 20 art projects in and around the new stations, a project dubbed “Arts on the Line” that became the subject of a 1985 documentary. It was a pioneering effort that spawned the public art effort around the country. (T officials are now reprising the initiative with artwork on the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford.)

The art projects ranged from functional to whimsical, and most have endured through the years. At Alewife Station, sculpted benches serve as artistic resting places for commuters. Davis Square Station features thought-provoking works, including a brilliant color display by world-renowned abstract painter Sam Gilliam that hangs near the escalator. When studied closely, it reveals the word “DAVIS,” which is hidden in the work. On the platform, if riders look down at their feet, they can read verse by various poets inscribed in the bricks.

One of the more popular art installations is “The Glove Cycle” at Porter Station by Cambridge artist Mags Harries. When she was pondering what type of sculpture to make, Harries told Smithsonian Magazine in 1985, snow from a recent blizzard began melting away, revealing lost gloves that people had dropped. She decided to place bronze glove sculptures of various sizes and shapes on the floor, between the escalators, and in the station entryway. There is a pile of “discarded” gloves in a corner next to an elevator on the inbound platform.

Emily Ruddock, executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide arts advocacy organization and major supporter of the 1 percent bills, said works such as “The Glove Cycle” add so much more than their cost to public spaces. Ruddock said part of the funding from the bills would be used to restore and maintain artwork such as those on the T that have been neglected over the years.

“We’ve seen how public art transforms our spaces, changes how we experience them, revives downtown and makes them spaces people want to be in again,” she said. “I ride that line regularly and when I see the gloves, it makes me think about my space differently every day.”

The clock in Great Hall of Flags at the State House, unveiled in 1990, drew criticism because of its $100,000 price tag at a time when the state was weathering a tough recession. (Photo by Jack Sullivan)

Some question the decision to pay for permanent installations that would deny use of the space for other works should time and taste dictate changes. Ruddock, who said her group supports permanent installations, said art pieces do not necessarily need to be only visual or esoteric but can be functional. Even landscape design for irrigation can be a work of art, she said.

“Public art could be standalone but incorporated into the design of the building and solve some design challenges,” she said, referring to the functionality of some artwork.

Then there is the issue of paying for controversial or edgy works of art with public dollars. Would a review commission made up of some artists but also state officials reject a piece because of its potential to stir controversy, however compelling the piece is? Keefe, the Worcester state representative, said that will always be a concern but that’s what the commission will be tasked with addressing.

“I look at a work of art and it may not be what I like but may be what someone else likes,” she said. “When I see a piece of public work that I appreciate and like, it’s not just the aesthetic of the piece itself but it’s the message and story that comes with it. I think that’s something the commission will have to map out and explore. There is a fine line between free speech and deciding on appropriateness.”

Ruddock cited a number of pieces in communities and buildings around the state that challenge beliefs and stand up for ideals, pieces that may once have raised or continue to touch on hot-button issues.

“There are amazing examples of community art projects that have raised issues of equity and inequality,” said Ruddock. “The best art is meant to provoke a conversation, honest conversations, and long overdue conversations. It’s about communities coming together and making decisions about their public spaces.”

Jack Sullivan can be reached at reportah@icloud.com.