The money for artistic projects is almost by definition ready to be
injected into the economy. It may take years to draw up a plan for a
highway, obtain the right of way and fend off legal challenges before
the bulldozers start rolling. But to buy a canvass and some
paintbrushes, or even some metal for a public sculpture, is
comparatively straightforward. That puts quick money into the pockets
of the companies that build, sell and ship those artistic materials as
"The money goes straight into the economy," says Janet Echelman, a
sculptor whose giant metallic nets have revitalized public parks and
downtowns from Texas to Portugal. "I pay two full-time assistants in my
studio, plus consultants who are architects, engineers, and landscape
architects, as well as lighting designers. A very large portion goes
into fabrication, which is funding workers at a steel factory."
Echelman currently has a commission from Phoenix to build a centerpiece
for a new downtown park that may face funding shortfalls. There are
"shovel-ready" arts projects like hers throughout the country.
Although federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture could,
through the Rural Development Program, spend a bit of their stimulus
money on art, it will be largely up to state and local governments to
determine what proportion, if any, of the various revenue streams will
go to the arts. Community Development Block Grants, for instance, can
be used to support art projects and institutions. By far the largest
pot potentially available for art would be the $43 billion that the
House allotted for transportation funding. State art agencies often
work to improve the relationship between, say, a highway or a train
station and its surroundings, using a small fraction of the
transportation project's money for public art projects.
A well-designed public space can boost real estate values and create
opportunities for small local business to thrive. Public art in urban
environments can also help physically and socially knit together
communities. In Houston, Echelman hung a bright orange sculpture from
the bottom of a highway on-ramp that flew over a public park. That
area, once desolate, has become a popular destination. Judy Baca, an
artist in Los Angeles has hired inner-city youth to help her paint
public murals, partly to help improve relations between rival gangs.
"It has the additional benefit of crime prevention and enhancing the
opportunities of under-privileged kids," explains Robert Lynch, CEO of
Americans for the Arts. "The process is as important as the product."
Local and national arts organizations are already beginning to appeal
to state governments to invest stimulus infrastructure dollars in art.
In Massachusetts local organizations have asked Governor Deval Patrick
to direct his administration to spend 1 percent of the federal
infrastructure dollars on design excellence and public art, and the
governor's office has been receptive. "People like living in well
designed, carefully thought out urban environments," says Ricardo D.
Barreto, director of the UrbanArts Institute at Massachusetts College
of Art and Design. "Public art is about more than putting a statue in a
corner. It is linked to urban design."