Opinion: Public contribution to The Lens makes sense

Plans for The Lens. -- photo courtesy of the City of Iowa City
Plans for The Lens. — photo courtesy of the City of Iowa City

While single, I framed a picture of Johnny Cash — an insert from an old record — and hung it in my living room. Later, I got married. My wife and I bought a house. We had different opinions on where (or if, in my wife’s view) we should hang this piece in our new home. It was tough for the two of us to agree on what to do with the picture.

In a city of 72,000, achieving consensus around a piece of public art is dramatically more difficult.

Public art, however, is important. And sometimes it’s expensive. Consequently, next Tuesday the Iowa City Council will — for the second time — consider a proposal to contribute up to $50,000 towards hiring a consultant to guide the fundraising committee in pulling together private funds to pay for The Lens.

Over the last three years, the City has been developing the Downtown Streetscape Project, designed to bring needed infrastructure, landscaping and other improvements to the Ped Mall. The project includes a signature art piece in Blackhawk Mini Park. It’s never been a secret that this type of public art would be expensive. Minutes from the June 5, 2014 Public Art Advisory Committee meeting describe the signature piece as “a significant project that could cost up to $1 million.”

It’s also never been a secret that the art would require a public-private partnership. Minutes from the Committee’s April 10, 2014 meeting reflect a discussion of “utilizing a public-private partnership to help with the project.” Moreover, the Committee has recognized for some time that funding sources outside of the City’s General Fund are necessary. In a Dec. 3, 2013 memo to City Manager Tom Markus, the Committee states that “to sustain an ongoing, stable source of funding for public art in our community, alternative funding sources need to be evaluated and implemented as possible.” As a specific funding alternative, the Committee recommended that the City “[s]eek out and create partnerships” with various groups, including the Iowa City Downtown District. That’s exactly what the City has tried to do with The Lens.

Recently, some Council members appear to believe that a request for public funds is an eleventh hour addition. The project, however, was always intended to be a public-private partnership utilizing at least some City funds. An additional example: On Oct. 6 of last year, the Press-Citizen reported that, in connection with The Lens, the City was “in the process of hiring a fundraising consultant to organize events, such as donor dinners and art displays. …”

A project like this requires quality public input. This input process has spanned three years and involved at least two of the City’s volunteer committees — the Public Art Advisory Committee and the Artist Review Panel. Mayor Jim Throgmorton was a member of the Artist Review Panel.

The City coordinated three public input meetings and three public open houses regarding the Ped Mall project in general. From April to August of 2014, the Public Art Advisory Committee discussed a signature art piece for the Ped Mall and developed a RFQ (Request for Qualifications) to distribute to potential artists.

The Artist Review Panel reviewed the responses, narrowing the field to three finalists. Each participated in a public open house. The Panel recommended Cecil Balmond in January of 2015; Council approved the recommendation the next month. Balmond designed the public art from March to October — with significant input from the Panel.

Whether or not the art suits you, this project is the product of robust public input.

Also, the Ped Mall project isn’t a one-piece-at-a-time deal. It requires a holistic approach. Without The Lens, other improvements to the Ped Mall won’t move forward. Landscaping and other upgrades were designed to complement The Lens. Without this piece of art, the current designs for the park can’t progress.

Three council members have already demonstrated their respect for the public input and detailed planning invested in this project. Mayor Throgmorton, Susan Mims and Kingsley Botchway voted in favor of the proposal on Feb. 2. Terry Dickens — who was unable to attend the meeting — has indicated that he supports the proposal. Thanks to each of you.

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In his State of the City address, Mayor Throgmorton counted the following among the Council’s priorities: developing a strong and resilient local economy, building a vibrant and walkable urban core and enhancing community engagement and intergovernmental relations. The Downtown Streetscape Project — including The Lens — advances each of these priorities. The Council should bear this in mind at next Tuesday’s meeting.