Throwback Thursday – KCAC Forum May 1994

KCAC Forum Magazine May 1994

by Chris Coulson

Public art is good for the economy, bottom line, bottom line, bottom line.
– Heidi Iverson Bilardo, Kansas City Public Art Commissioner

Outside the City Hall office of Public Art Administrator Heidi Iverson Bilardo is a Kansas City Star cartoon pinned to a wall. It is a drawing of the four columns of the Bartle Hall project, each topped off with a different sculpture…one of them a sculpture of a Kansas City taxpayer drilled with a screw. Someone, you’d assume an ally, has written something across the bottom of the cartoon…”Welcome to Kansas City, Heidi!”

In spite of criticism from some of the local citizenry, from some of the editorial Staff of The Kansas City Star, Bilardo remains excited and optimistically determined about the future of public art in Kansas City.

Criticism of the administrator, and of the Municipal Art Commission, seems based mostly in the vague notion that they are part of an “elitist,” maybe even secret enterprise whose members choose art only they like or understand, with no community involvement or representation, and do all this in a couple of days, or overnight, somewhere else, and all at great taxpayer expense. According to Bilardo, nothing could be further from the truth.

“All members of the community are represented,” said Bilardo, “The process of selection involved a year-and-a-half discussion review for the Terry Allen project alone, which ‘lay-people’ are very much a part of. And we try to make all the review panels as culturally diverse as possible.”

The funding for the projects Bilardo and the Arts Commission develop comes from what is known as the one percent for art program, which began in 1970. The program in Kansas City was one of the first of its kind in the United States, and has since branched out and flourished in cities like Phoenix, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Those cities all have one percent for art programs, the one percent seeming to be the decided upon fair percentage (Bilardo said that in certain Japanese cities, it can be five percent).

The Kansas City program, however, lay mostly dormant after it was introduced by municipal ordinance in 1970… until 1990 when then-mayor Richard Berkley created the Public Art Task Force to enliven the program. It was even more enlivened some months later when the Kansas City Council provided the financial backing for the 20 year-old program whose goal is reserving one percent of the cost of the construction, reconstruction or remodeling of any municipal building for aesthetic ornamentation and adornment.

The Process
The process of selecting each public art project is, according to Bilardo, carefully and inclusively carried out. Here is the (official) step-by-step plan the Commission follows with each art project:
1) The Coordinator recommends to the Municipal Art Commission the establishment of a project.
2) The recommendation of names and the establishment of a Review Panel.
3) The Panel convenes, reviews the project, holds first review of artists.
4) The Panel finalizes short list of artists, and materials sent.
5) The Panel interviews short list of artists, and selects an artist.
6) The Artist studies the selected project (materials sent, Artist visits Kansas City); a “first phase” contract is drawn up.
7) The Artist develops and reviews project plans with project planners, revisions are made.
8) The Artist presents proposal to the Project Panel, more revisions.
9) The Artist and Panel present proposal to the Municipal Art Commission.
10) The Artist, Project Coordinator (whose role is to communicate, organize, implement all  aspects of the project) and City Official finalize fabrication, transportation, implementation and budgetary issues; a “second phase” contract is made.
11) Implementation of the project begins.
Terry Allen

“I look for artists reflecting the issues of our times. I am looking to push the edge a little bit.”
-Heidi Iverson Bilardo

Misplaced, Misbegotten Art”
-title from a Kansas City Star editorial

The most controversial project lately is the selection of artist Terry Allen’s sculpture for the new Fire and Police Communications Center. The sculpture will be of a man in suit and tie, his fingers in his ears, a shoe in his mouth, and his wind-blown tie lashed across his eyes.  And again, the criticism seems to run from the hysterical to the humorless to the altogether inaccurate. A Kansas City Star editorial writer started a recent lead editorial deciding of the Allen sculpture: “It not only sounds silly, it looks silly.” A few lines later, in a piece that mentions THE TAX-PAYER t times in six paragraphs, the writer goes as far as to say: “This is not great art in the traditional sense. To some, it is even offensive (our italics) art. The Board of Police Commissioners in particular is upset by the piece; it likely will be placed only a few dozen feet from Police Headquarters.”

That last bit of information is the altogether inaccurate, mentioned above.

According to Bilardo, the Communications Center will be built between the police station and the Municipal Court building to the north. The sculpture, placed in front of the center, will not be a few dozen feet from Police Headquarters, but, as Bilardo said, “50 or more yards away.”

A few lines later, the editorial makes this accusation of Bilardo and the Art Commission: “Taxpayers are being forced (our italics) to finance ‘art’ that ridicules the institutions that confiscate (our italics) their wealth to pay for the public art.”

And this is the hysterical, mentioned above, Public Art Administrator Bilardo has described the selection process as well represented. Here is the list of members of the artist selection panel for the Terry Allen project:

  • Deborah Leveton, 20th Century Curator, Des Moines Art Center
  • Bruce Hartman, Director, Johnson County Community College Art Gallery
  • Lester Goldman, Artist, Kansas City Art Institute Faculty Member
  • Corky Pfeiffer, Community Representative
  • Captain Vince McInerney, Commander of Media Relations, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Police Department Representative
  • Vic Miles, Superintendent of Communications Kansas City, Missouri Fire
  • Department Representative
  • Bruce Palmer, Interim City Architect
  • John A. Bell, Bell/Knott Associates, Project Architect

Advisory Group:

  • Robert Holzwarth, City Architect’s Office
  • Stephanie Jacobson, Chair, Municipal Art Commission
  • Leonard Pryor, Municipal Art Commission

How Much?
So, we’ve covered the official selection process step by step, and we know who’s on the  election panel for the Terry Allen project. There is one other question, and it’s a fair one.  What about the cost of this project, which is operating on a $78,000 budget, to each Kansas City taxpayer?

“The economic impact,” according to Bilardo, “shared by taxpayers of the greater Kansas City area, is about 9 cents per person. That’s the reality of this project. And if anyone in Kansas City wants their money back, we’ll be more than happy to refund it.”