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Well-meaning art, made by committee

The good news: Clark County just received $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to add public art to the Maryland Parkway renovation being undertaken by (inhale now) the county, the city, UNLV, the Regional Transportation Commission and the Urban Land Institute (exhale). That’s a few pounds of bureaucracy by anyone’s measure. Those entities will augment the NEA grant with fiscal contributions and in-kind services for a total just north of $101,000.

Hooray, public art!

The blah news, straight from the county’s press release: “The goal is to install art that increases the social capital of the area while building and encouraging community pride and expressions of localized civic character, officials said. … Another goal includes arts-based community development that drives economic revitalization.”

Hooray … social capital and … expressions of localized character …?

Clark County was among the 66 recipients of “Our Town” grants announced Wednesday, totaling some $5 million divvied up across America and also in Texas. The public art program will be a small part of a more involved, longer-range spiff-up of Maryland Parkway, between McCarran International Airport and downtown. (That area was the subject of a grabby photo essay in the June issue of Desert Companion.)

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Next step: “A multi-disciplinary design team comprised of architects, landscape architects and artists is expected to guide development of the public art plan.” This team will, of course, seek public input; neighborhood history will be looked at; collaborations will be encouraged; holders of stake will have their say. Two years from now, in August 2016, after much labored breathing, a “Public Art Urban Design Plan” will be birthed, presumably resulting in art that’ll provide “an incentive for residents and visitors to frequent the businesses along the parkway.”

This is, of course, a development to be cheered. I'm always happy to see art get some attention and artists (hopefully, down the line somewhere) some money. But, in the realm of public aesthetics, basic skepticism and a little cultural history prompt one to wonder about the likelihood that five public or nonprofit entities + a design team + innumerable “stakeholders” + two years will = amazing art. I mean, that’s an awful lot of filters. “Doesn’t sound like anything will get through,” one office wag said. And any work that does survive the gantlet of competing agendas, constituency-servicing and simple differences in taste will surely have been emptied of ideas, idiosyncrasy and challenge — which is to say, content. It’ll very likely be so larded with good intentions and positive messaging that by the time it’s installed it will have left the realm of art to become feel-good civic decoration, possibly encouraging community pride but probably not doing much as art. (The valley has a mixed record when it comes to this stuff.)

One might also wonder if it’s even in art’s job description to “encourage community pride,” to “drive economic revitalization.” Sure, that happens — the invariable first step of neighborhood gentrification is the arrival of creatives, who lend the area a zippy cachet that's catnip to yuppies and Realtors. Arts boosters love to cite studies that indicate cultural institutions provide as much economic benefit as a major league sports team. And certainly public art can be an important element in place-making; there’s plenty of potential for that in a diverse urban area such as Maryland Parkway. (Really, look at our photo essay.)

Placemaking possibly aside, those things are generally secondary effects of art, and shouldn't be its explicit reason for existing. At its best, great art creates what the theory types call “communities of desire” — people drawn to the work thanks to the talent, sensibility and risk-taking of singular artists. It's hard to imagine that happening by committee. I could be wrong, of course. Indeed, I hope I am. Otherwise, as one arts person told me, “They should just install large renditions of the press release.”

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