August 13, 2008 in Opinion

Our View: Completing sculpture not a good use of state funds

 

Public art perils

Sculptor David Govedare has it better than painter Michael Spafford, whose “Twelve Labors of Hercules” was commissioned to adorn the Washington state House of Representatives. Installed in 1981, the murals were covered with plywood a year later after they struck some lawmakers as naughty. Except for a brief uncovering in 1987, the panels were concealed or stored until 1989 when Centralia College acquired them for eventual display (but not until 2003) in the school’s Corbet Theatre.

It has been described as the most ambitious artistic undertaking in Washington state history. A newspaper writer once speculated it could become as significant a tourist attraction as Mount Rushmore.

But two decades after Chewelah sculptor David Govedare began work on “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies,” it remains unfinished, hundreds of thousands of dollars away from fulfilling the artist’s dream for a piece of public art on a barren bluff in the middle of the state.

The 16 rusted steel horses that have marked the wind-swept site near Vantage since 1992 are part of a concept that was meant to depict 18 horses galloping free from a tipped basket. Fulfilling that vision would cost an estimated $350,000, and one Washington legislator – Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane – favors finding state funding for it.

Most people who have cruised Interstate 90 beneath the portion that’s in place – and the state Department of Transportation estimates 100 million vehicles have driven past – probably didn’t know anything was missing. So that’s one reason to question whether one-third of a million dollars in public funding is called for now.

Not that art isn’t a valid use for tax dollars. But it needs to take its place on the priority list, and when state government is under a hiring freeze in anticipation of a $2.7 billion revenue shortfall, completing a 20-year-old sculpture ranks pretty low.

Although Govedare’s creation was approved as part of Washington’s state centennial celebration in 1989, it was never intended that it would be paid for with state dollars. Grant County commissioners gave $2,000 out of their tourism budget and the Department of Transportation made the land available, but private donors were to have carried the bulk of the funding load.

And many have. Corporations have written checks. Children have conducted penny drives. Individual donors have kicked in, sometimes at fundraising events. Publicity for the effort has been plentiful, including an appearance by Govedare on “Good Morning, America.”

As arts enthusiasts will be quick to point out, the difficulty of obtaining support for this kind of venture is one reason why government needs to step in. Yes, but in a methodical way, one that screens and selects projects up front and identifies the funding in advance rather than after the fact.

As Govedare himself put it 20 years ago, “When you stoke up the fire of creativity, you jump into that fire and your wallet has to go with it.”

At present the state is facing serious budgetary challenges in critical areas. It is up to the arts community to turn its energy to private sector fundraising. Or just consider the piece complete – as thousands of passers-by undoubtedly already do.


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