Beyond the Blue Rhino

Beyond the Blue Rhino

October 12th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The City Council's split vote last week over the purchase of the Blue Rhino sculpture in Coolidge Park turned out the right way: The council, with one member absent, voted 5-3 to buy the sculpture, which has captured a substantial fan base in the two years it's been on free display in the park. The council's divide was a bit discouraging nonetheless. It illustrated the sort of official schizophrenia that hampers badly needed support for the range of arts in civic life here.

Council members Deborah Scott, Pam Ladd and Jack Benson opposed spending $32,500 for the popular work, the creation of local artist John Petrey, even though both Ladd and Benson have themselves sought pieces of public art for their individual City Council districts.

That contradiction is regrettable, but not unusual. The core of the problem, at least at the government level, is that while most public officials appreciate the cultural and civic value of arts in our community's quality of life, some don't want to justify public expenditures in support of the arts to taxpayers.

In fact, city and county officials tend to spend next to nothing from public coffers on public art while simultaneously praising its enormous public value. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to advocate a moderate view of public investment in the arts for the good of the city is bound to make more citizens think that art does not merit public support.

That's neither constructive, nor wise. The role of the arts is not just essential to our personal quality of life. It has also become one of the most important factors in our community's economic development and in the public's enjoyment of our community's expanding amenities.

New business, tourism and our residents' public enjoyment of our improving quality of life depend on far more than our basic infrastructure of sewers, streets and schools. When Volkswagen decided three years ago to build the manufacturing center that is transforming our economic potential, for example, its leaders explained that it was the city's renaissance and its cultural amenities -- the Riverwalk, public art, the museum district and the revitalization of downtown -- that cemented their decision. Indeed, they chose to announce their decision in the atrium of the Hunter Museum, where they explicitly lauded the city's aesthetic quality.

The council's divide, to be sure, was ironic and out of sync for other reasons. It came as citizens were engaged in meetings nearly every day last week, in one area of the county or another, to participate in Imagine Chattanooga 20/20. This cultural planning process is aimed at honing the ways that creativity, arts and culture can address community issues ranging the gamut of local needs: education and job creation, crime and neighborhood revitalization, environmental sustainability and demographic trends.

This important work underscores just how much the public benefits from the arts. Students, families, seniors and individuals of all ages benefit already from a range of arts activities -- plays, concerts, public art and exhibitions -- that uplift our lives and elevate our goals. And Allied Arts groups are studying ways to bring more arts activities to more schools and neighborhoods, senior centers and public venues.

The more that area residents discover how essential the various forms of art are to their lives, the more essential such outreach efforts will become. That realization should prompt broader financial support, publicly and privately; in fact, it must to take the place of a vanishing generation of a few large donors. But the rewards will be immense.