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Defenders Say Art Not Just Plaything East Side Lawmakers Push To Kill Funding For Public Art

Four Spokane schools acquired more than $50,000 worth of artwork this month from a state program that faces a tough fight in the Legislature.

Three Eastern Washington lawmakers are targeting the 20-year-old Art in Public Places program for elimination or cuts.

Schools get about 40 percent of the artwork. Spokane teachers, students and a Republican legislator praised the program last week - at least the portion that goes to schools.

“Kids need to learn about art,” said Sen. John Moyer, R-Spokane.

“I honestly think if kids had more arts training there would be less violence,” said Hamblen Elementary art teacher Carolyn Schmitz. “It speaks to the more introspective, reflective part of them.”

The program adds money for artwork to major state construction projects. The art money equals onehalf of 1 percent of each project’s budget.

Spokane County has 10 percent of the state’s art collection. The 213 state art pieces in the county were bought over the years for $829,545.

The pieces range from a $49 painting of a frog at Sunset Elementary School in Cheney School District to a $61,000 sculpture titled “Sonic Garden” at the state prison in Airway Heights.

Other sculptures and paintings are at Eastern Washington University, Eastern State Hospital, the Washington State Patrol district office and the Ag Trade Center.

“I question having public funds amounting to several thousand dollars going to projects the local community may not even support,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, whose bill would eliminate the art money for prisons and schools.

City arts director Sue Ellen Heflin said challenges to the program should alarm art lovers.

“If it is important to people they darn well better get out there and let their legislators know because they might not have another chance, at least in this lifetime,” Heflin said.

McMorris’ bill would save the state more than $960,000 in the 1995-97 biennium, according to the Washington Arts Commission.

McMorris said school districts still could buy art for schools if they persuaded local taxpayers to pay for it. Schools would have more freedom to choose artists who aren’t on the state’s approved list, she said.

Colville dentist-turned-sculptor Jerry McKellar criticized the list for neglecting realistic art. He recently helped pick David Govedare to create a state-paid sculpture for Colville High School. McKellar’s own artworks, bronze sculptures of wildlife and Western themes, were rejected by the state.

“Commercially, I do real well,” McKellar said.

Artists should pay more attention to consumer demand and not rely on government money, said Rep. Larry Crouse, sponsor of a bill that would eliminate all money for art in state buildings. His fellow Spokane Valley Republican Sen. Bob McCaslin is sponsoring an identical bill.

Crouse introduced a second bill to abolish the state arts commission.

Unaware of the controversy, children at Logan Elementary School in northeast Spokane enthusiastically greeted two new sculptures delivered Tuesday.

The children fondly patted the colorful concrete turtles, which are studded with shells, marbles, mirrors, stones and mosaic tiles.

Children can sit and climb on the sturdy turtles, said Oregon artists Lilli Ann and Marvin Rosenberg, who delivered them.

Students spontaneously applauded slides of other works the Rosenbergs created for a Philadelphia hospital, a New York City park and a Boston subway station.

“Not all kids get to see artwork and all kids deserve it,” said 11-year-old Bonnie Staeheli, a Logan student.

The turtles cost a total of $7,000. A school committee also chose three other artworks totaling $3,798.

Stevens and Hamblen elementary schools also received art this month.

On Wednesday, a committee of Chase Middle School teachers and students saw a scale model of a fabric sculpture that will be suspended in the school’s entry this summer.

San Francisco artist Anne Healey’s work depicts a giant overhead tic-tac-toe game. The colorful sailcloth work will cost $22,500.

“I love it,” said Principal Rodger Lake as he peered through a small window on the mock-up.

“To me, it’s about being cheerful and being a kid.”

Crouse said the fabric sculpture sounded interesting.

“I enjoy stuff like that, but the bottom line is do the taxpayers need to pay for it?” Crouse asked. “Could the private sector pick this up?”

Heflin, who oversees a separate city “1 percent for art” program, said private money bought some of Spokane’s public art, such as the Bloomsday runners statue in Riverfront Park.

“But the private sector can’t do it all,” she said.

Raising private money to buy Ken Spiering’s red wagon sculpture for the park was difficult, even though it is well-liked, Heflin said.

Percent-for-art programs began in the 1970s and broadened the scope of American public art beyond war memorials and heroic statues, said Richard Twedt, art department chairman at Eastern Washington University.

Twedt took his students on a walking tour of some of Spokane’s public art Thursday.

They started at the remodeled Northern Pacific Railroad station with John Young’s “Bringing Home the Wishing Rock.” They walked behind the Ag Trade Center to see Jody Pinto’s “East-West Arbor.”

Both were bought with public money.

They saw Harold Balazs’ “floating” sculpture in the Spokane River and Spiering’s red wagon, both privately bought and donated to the city.

With the National Endowment for the Arts in congressional jeopardy, political sentiment against public art has never been higher, Twedt said.

“I don’t know if Michelangelo would make it in America. We have people here who would put loincloths and fig leaves on the Sistine Chapel.”

At EWU, Twedt repeatedly defends a state-paid sculpture he helped select. The $32,000 untitled work by Robert Lobe is a rock and tree wrapped in aluminum.

EWU business major Justin Franke plans to petition the university to move the sculpture away from the student union building and closer to the art building.

Students don’t like or understand the work, and have given it an obscene nickname, Franke said.

“It breaks my heart because here we have a sculpture by an artist of international reputation and everybody hates it,” Twedt said.

He said he believes public art funding will survive the current challenge. “Art will triumph over the Philistines,” he said.

MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: An arts sampler

See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: An arts sampler