Members of the General Government Committee largely listened to comment on proposed duties and powers of the Public Arts Commission, later addressing more City Council-specific items on the agenda.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A rewrite of the city ordinance on the role of the Public Arts Commission will go through further review as City Councilors and commission members grapple with the body's power over public art.
The General Government Committee has held several meetings over the past six weeks to revamp the ordinance after Mayor Thomas Bernard requested significant changes that PAC officials felt reduced them to a recommending body.
While earlier meetings had focused on tightening up and clarifying general language, Monday's meeting returned to the commission's role in authorizing and approving public art projects and how to square that with the city charter that requires that the mayor has to sign any contract "where the amount involved is $2,000 or more."
Many of the same arguments brought up at City Council in August were repeated, though comments tended to center on two areas: the authority of the City Council and mayor related to contracts and gifts as spelled out in the city's charter and the process by which the commission reviews and approves applications.
"What I think is this committee had gone along with was that the commission would be on its own authority for the whole application process, and other members agreed that the mayor should be contracting authority," said General Government Chairman Eric Buddington. "Which I had difficulty with because I don't see how that meshes."
The Public Arts Commission's fear is that it will come down to one person deciding what art is — something the generators of the ordinance had tried mightily to avoid several years ago by making it "mayor proof."
"To change where the ultimate decision lies is like a slap in the face to me because we spent so long trying to make sense of this for any mayor," said Erica Manville, a founding member who has since left the commission. "We wanted the Public Arts Commission to consist of citizens who were making that decision. It doesn't make sense to me to make the ultimate decider the mayor."
Commission Chairwoman Julia Dixon said the mayor already has two points of opportunity to weigh in on public art: through the appointment of commissioners and by "controlling the canvas" as to where in the city artwork can be placed.
Having the mayor as the signatory would create a third element of control and the fear is that groups or individual artists will do an end-run around the arts commission and just go directly to the mayor first. And if the mayor refuses to sign a contract, there's no recourse.
"I don't see any ability to challenge that," said Michelle Daly, program coordinator for the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center. "I would like to see a mechanism to challenge that if the final decision is going to be with the mayor's office."
The committee and councilors in attendance noted that the City Council also has some control, according to the charter. It has to vote to accept any gift, such as an artwork installed on public land.
City Councilor Jason LaForest, who was in attendance, felt it very important that the Public Arts Commission maintain its authority.
"I had included in my suggestions a veto mechanism for the council if there was ever a disagreement between the PAC and the mayor over the placement of art," he said. "Because I felt that as elected officials rather than political appointees, it made more sense for that burden to be on the council because the mayor can technically remove a commissioner."
The city solicitor, KP Law, provided an opinion that the mayor and the Public Arts Commission fulfilled two separate roles that did not conflict.
"Pursuant to applicable state statute and City Ordinance, the agreement should be signed by both the Public Arts Commission and the Mayor," the statement read. "The statute and ordinance do not conflict with each other, they merely create distinct requirements, which are both satisfied by having the mayor and PAC sign on the City's behalf."
KP Law did not address how the value of an artwork could be determined as $2,000 or more, other than to possibly refer to the city's insurer.
"Of course, this will be very difficult to realistically estimate ... However, in my opinion, determining who should sign these agreements does not require determining the value of the painting," the opinion read, continuing that both the mayor and commission should sign any agreements.
The General Government Committee said it would look more into how value could be calculated; the arts commission does require liability for installation but not as insurance for the works.
Former Mayor Richard Alcombright had called for the commission to be the arbiter of public arts and to develop a contract with artists to protect both the city and the artwork. Previous works had gone up with simple permissions — and no documentation.
The ghost of one of those public artworks has been haunting the General Government Committee's efforts even as members and commenters tried mightily to prevent being drawn into lengthy discussion on the topic. The "contentious issue" of the conflicting rights of a school art project and of a sound installation under the Veterans Memorial Bridge had been raised by Bernard as a reason to review the arts commission's ordinance.
"The reason for the conflict is the mayor had made a decision of what he would want to do with that property," Dixon said. "This whole dilemma is about an issue that's in the past. ... Why we're all sitting here is related to that contentious issue and our contracting ability is going to impact that contentious issue."
Dixon said her commission wanted to be forward thinking and laying the groundwork for what public art is in North Adams. She also asked that a statement on creating "policies and programs" be added back into the ordinance to reflect the commission's role in developing public art. Buddington said the mayor had asked that a paragraph be restored to address that.
The commission has no budget and Dixon said attempts to create some type of "friends of" group did not go far. This limited the PAC in soliciting commissioned work or in maintaining "custody and care" of any works as spelled out in the ordinance.
Councilors said they could not add any money to the budget but could bring up the concept during budget season or about setting up a fund or donations.
The committee also went over several instances of "approval/approving" in the ordinance that Dixon felt needed clarifying as to whether it meant applications or contracts. There was also discussion of whether the entire application should go to the mayor's office, whether a 90-day deadline inserted into the ordinance was needed and other elements of the proposed revisions.
But the conversation continually returned to the ability of the Public Arts Commission to create a strong, sustainable and independent public arts culture in North Adams.
"When you look at communities that have really robust public arts programs that I think we sort of aspire to be, all of those have a really informed committee making those decisions and policies that is at least partially separated from their civic decision making," said Daley. "Best practices are no sole person should decide what art is, where it goes and who should get to make it because art is so subjective. ...
"I fear as we get so in the weeds on this debate what you are going to see is organizations and artists who are not going to want to participate in the process because we've made it so onerous, we've made it so fickle in some ways, and we've made it so ... it depends on a positive power dynamic in that moment."
The General Government Committee set another joint meeting with the Public Arts Commission on Monday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers.
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