Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 | 2 a.m.
What is art?
It’s an eternal question that has dogged communities around the world, and a question that can embroil people in debates as ireful as debates over who should be president.
Thankfully or regrettably, Clark County has rarely had to tackle the art question, due to lack of money or lack of interest.
Last summer, however, county commissioners took a major step in becoming a public art player by creating the Percent for the Arts program. They voted to divert 5 percent of annual room tax collections and 5 percent of the county’s share of property taxes into the Arts Fund, not to exceed $1.25 million.
That tax revenue starts to collect in the Arts Fund Jan. 1.
Next week’s County Commission meeting includes a 2013 proposed plan for the Percent for the Arts program. The public document includes examples of public art already installed, such as a large, concrete, green-painted toad and similarly sized groundhog at the county’s Wetlands Park. Another example is the Wetlands Park’s arching metallic shade structure, along with some painted utility boxes scattered around the Las Vegas Valley.
None of those pieces were funded with money from Percent for the Arts.
They have, however, awakened some commissioners to the possibilities of what Percent for the Arts money, expected to total $300,000 in 2013 and about $842,000 in 2014, can be used to support.
Commissioners don’t all agree that sculptures the likes of a giant green toad are the right way to go for public art.
Though money for the fund comes from hotel room taxes, Commissioner Steve Sisolak said, “It’s still taxpayer money. And is a concrete toad that’s like a kid’s plaything public art? Is that chipmunk or gopher or whatever it is art, versus a mural? How do you make that call? There’s functional art, and some of that looks very good.”
One group familiar with the question is the Americans for the Arts, a 52-year-old organization dedicated to promoting art and art education throughout the country. Chairman Ken Fergeson, who is an Oklahoma banker by trade, said public art is defined by the community.
“To me, you have paid staff that goes into the community — to everybody who lives and works and has businesses — and try to agree on what they want as a piece of public art,” Fergeson said. “And some of it will make people comment, and it may not be to everybody’s taste, but people will talk about it. Most will say this says something to us and means something to us.”
Commissioner Tom Collins, whose district includes most of northeastern Clark County, is keenly aware of the room-tax revenues going to the Arts Fund because the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority receives the majority of those room taxes, and he is the Authority chairman.
“I just want to be sure we’re using the money in a way that’s both culturally sensitive and inspirational to people throughout the county,” Collins said. “We should partner with the rest of the community to make this work.”
To that end, Collins expressed interest in the makeup of an art committee that will help determine sites for public art. The art committee, outlined in the planning document, “will consist of seven artists, art professionals and other county residents with art expertise.”
Of those seven, one will be a UNLV Art Department faculty member, one will be an architect or landscape architect, one a professional independent artist and one a member of the Las Vegas Office of Cultural Affairs. All members would need county commissioner approval.
The county would hire a cultural specialist at $40,000 to oversee the program.
The program’s mission, the document says, is “to enrich Clark County with engaging public spaces in which citizens and visitors encounter art that will surprise, delight and complement the County’s commitment to excellence in urban design.”
The planning document defines “works of art” as “two- or three-dimensional” projects but also includes “video, electronic and digital art, holography” and other technologically based forms.
To Sisolak’s consternation, the definition doesn’t include performing arts. Based on some of the angry reaction earlier this year to steep fee increases to use library theaters for various productions, Sisolak said he would like to see the definition of “works of art” expanded.
“This isn’t just to employ artists,” he said. “Some of this is to provide art education. Can’t we take advantage of this opportunity to help offset some of those theater costs so those programs can stay alive?”
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who pushed to get the votes for the Percent for the Arts program, said performing arts “is a very different animal that is still necessary, and it’s something to go for down the road.”
“But this is new,” she said. “You start in one direction and do what other entities have been doing and get it moving along first.”
As for concerns about community involvement, she said the plan includes a hyper-local element: After the art committee selects a site, they will select a jury of artists, residents, art professionals and business owners in the site area to pick an artist to create the artwork.
“They will figure out what components best fit the area, with a mind to being diverse and culturally sensitive,” Giunchigliani said.
Sisolak anticipates “a long discussion” at Tuesday’s commission meeting.
“And, frankly, it’s a nice debate to have,” he said.