Demeaning the arts only hurts the city

Demeaning the arts only hurts the city

April 11th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Jerry Jones, owner of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, is like many Texans in his love of art. Sure, he loves his football team, but he tells visitors he also loves the incredibly artistic design of the $1.3 billion Cowboy Stadium, and the spectacular collection of large-scale art that he commissioned for the stadium. Visitors would understand. The stadium itself is an aesthetic work of art. The art collection there -- a mix of media by eight internationally known artists whose works range from oil-on-canvas to murals to large-scale installations -- brings beauty and awe to the walls and halls of the stadium.

Dallas' centerpiece artistic attraction, however, is the bronze herd of 70 -- count'em, 70 -- finely detailed, larger-than-life longhorns. They lope, like half-wild beasts, over the hill and down by the waterfalls and along the large pond that take up most of the four acres of Pioneer Plaza in downtown Dallas, across from City Hall and the Dallas Convention Center.

Throngs of tourists traipse among the bronzed 6-foot-high, raw-hide herd. Many pause to rub the awesome spread of longhorns, to trace hands over their muscular bodies, and to absorb the exquisite period detail of the tack, boots and clothes of the three bronze cowboys who ride high on equally large horses, straining to keep the herd together.

This wonderful 4.2 acre park cost $9 million to start in 1992, but that wouldn't begin to pay for the 70 bronze longhorn steers. Their cost has grown incrementally over the past 19 years as Dallas increased the herd. The steers now cost around a million dollars apiece.

That is, of course, substantially more than the $32,500 that the Chattanooga City Council forked over in October 2011 for the Blue Rhino, which stands now before the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. But given the continuing demeaning references to the city's purchase of that sculpture, it raises pertinent questions at a poignant moment, the kickoff today of "Spark -- a right brain celebration."

Why has the city's fractional investment in public art been so disparaged that several City Council members now seem fearful to say that they even like public art, or that it merits city government's support?

And if that fear is so tangible that it has dampened public investment in the arts, why are so many people so eager to engage in arts, and to seek the economic, aspirational and spiritual benefits they bring, as we will see over the next 11 days of Spark?

These are pertinent questions. The Blue Rhino purchase has become a symbolic wedge device that art scrooges and tea party types wrongly use as a public club to batter city support for the arts. And that is affecting the city's willingness to support not just the occasional purchase of public art, but also to continue general support for art agencies and the cost of special events.

Such tepid public support for art-related organizations and events may jeopardize private support for the arts, and diminish efforts that give soul to the city. This shouldn't happen. There is too much at stake across the spectrum of arts here, from the visual arts of painting and sculpture, to the performing arts of dance, music, theater and the symphony; from literary arts to culinary arts to festivals and the varied celebrations of all these things.

In a column elsewhere on this page, Dan Bowers accurately makes the case that public investment in the arts produces a host of benefits: economic development, job growth, tourism and quality of life. He also refers to a study, not ironically, by Dallas educators that also confirmed that making participation in many forms of art available to students helped raise achievement levels and reduce drop-outs by giving students other means of engagement, interest and self-growth.

The reason is hardly a mystery. Participation in most any form of art, as an observer, listener or a doer, expands sensory, spiritual and interpersonal connections; it calms the soul even as it stimulates empathy, engagement, learning and a sense of well-being.

Political leaders should know this intuitively. The city and county need the dividends of public investment in support of the arts -- from an occasional purchase of public sculpture, to educational programs, to appropriations to help sustain the community's arts organizations. The arts contribute as much to the human infrastructure of the community and its goals as anything else local governments do. The arts are essential civic infrastructure. They merit clear-eyed support.