Defend Public Art

At its best, public art has the trans-formative potential to spark community engagement and create a sense of place. On any given day, you can see a child gravitate joyfully to the Mudgy and Millie moose at Independence Point or on Sherman Avenue. Functional but drab utility boxes are now re-imagined with vibrant colors, many displaying the work of students. Storm drain murals serve the dual purpose of city beautification and raising awareness of what flows into our lake. Take a walk down Front Avenue to the library, and you will discover bronze statues that pay tribute to Idaho’s rich history of loggers, farmers, miners and construction workers.

Public art resides in spaces where the community comes together: in parks, streets, squares, schools, and on buildings that tower over us. Sculptures and murals are infused in spaces where we organize cultural and civic events and engage in leisurely activities. Besides aesthetic and historical value, public art can comment on the human condition, evoke feelings across the spectrum and become catalysts of lively discussion. Feelings of love, pride, disgust, confusion or annoyance from any given art piece is highly subjective.

I walk in Riverstone Park often. I appreciate many of the sculptures and don’t care for some. I passed Marker #11 numerous times but never paid thoughtful attention to it. I wish now that I had. I wish I had developed my own interpretation of the dark column donning a taboo symbol that stirred up potent emotions and memories understandably for many.

Is it possible that Marker #11 is a critical statement of communist regimes? Should Coeur d’Alene only sponsor art that is pleasant, inspired by nature and easily understood? Now what remains is a cement slab with an orange construction cone. The sculpture was erected without significant attention, largely ignored by the public and then swiftly removed without thoughtful facilitation of civic dialogue or explanation of what the sculpture sought to convey.

I am grateful for the many artists and volunteers who come together to deepen the cultural landscape of North Idaho. I admire those who passionately work to create an environment where art and culture can be experienced by all. I am sad to see our Arts Commission verbally stoned by an angry crowd. There is no moral justification for needlessly abusing volunteers. Concerns can be expressed without resorting to cruelty.

I am opposed to any proposed policy that seeks to defund, discredit and dismantle the important work the Arts Commission and partners do in our community. Posted on the “North Idaho News” Facebook page with over 16,000 followers was a resolution passed by a certain political committee expressing their concerns of the Art Commission, the funding that supports public art, outlining changes they believe should happen. The resolution likely will be nothing more than a divisive political statement. Can we not instead work to increase citizen involvement in art selections?

Unfortunately, there is a vocal minority so angered by public art they detest, and the public dollars associated with it, that they cannot acknowledge or respect what others in our community value and hold dear. The rallying call of “not with my tax dollars” or “you pay for it, not me” is used to justify vicious attacks on anything that seeks to serve the public good — libraries, parks and schools to name a few. Everything is skewed so terribly black or white — you are either a believer of the unregulated free market unfettered by morality or you are a socialist tyrant scheming to destroy individual liberty, nothing in between or resembling reason. Some just cannot see how the public and private spheres work collaboratively with one another to create a healthy community. You can indeed strengthen and support public goods while championing accountability and responsible use of resources.

On all levels of government, there is a lack of simple, educational budget information designed and disseminated to the average voter and taxpayer. Most of us are not policy wonks or taxation experts, and too often, politicians, their parties and backers manipulate that to their advantage, using media to emotionally inflame the masses. Education lights the path to reason.

Here’s a challenge for someone out there with city budget knowledge and a desire to inform: your help is needed to simply and factually explain how much the average-income household pays to sustain a public art program in Coeur d’Alene. We need tangible metrics we can relate to. What if all the public art in town equals the cost of a pack of gum per household? Is perhaps all this taxpayer outrage at Marker #11 and anything else interpreted as “amorphous blobs” or “infested with amoebas” just kind of trivial in the grand scheme of things?

A toxic undercurrent in our beautiful city keeps on bringing us down and creating chaos. It’s not going away. We try to ignore it and focus on the positive. We are silent because we fear the negative backlash and relentless personal targeting for standing up for who and what we care about. I personally find little can be gained from sparring with these people. There is only encouraging community-minded people to speak their truth more freely. I deeply value art and its role in creating community engagement in public spaces and will take the good, the bad and the ugly over nothing at all any day.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

Written by Jessica Mahuron in response to a KCRCC Resolution Concerning the Public Funding of the Arts Commission