Other Texas cities spend more than San Antonio on public art. You have to look harder to find a destination city that spends less. Yet two of the five community bond committees made unprecedented recommendations to City Council on Wednesday to cut or eliminate public art funding in the 2022 city bond.

The leading citizens, all 163 of them, who were appointed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg or City Council members to serve as unpaid volunteers on the citizen committees deserve to be commended — and they were, on and on and on, at Wednesday’s council meeting — but it would be wrong for Nirenberg and council to follow the particular recommendations to cut the proposed 1.5% public art spending in the bond.

I’d argue that the two committees in question — the drainage committee, co-chaired by Chris Garcia and Suzanne Scott, and the parks committee, co-chaired by Jeanette Honermann and Jim Bailey — overstepped their authority. Garcia and Scott’s committee proposed eliminating all public art funding from drainage projects, while Honermann and Bailey’s committee proposed a one-third reduction to 1%.

When the committees were seated in October, appointees were asked to serve in an “advisory role” to council, to “obtain community input” through a series of public meetings when citizens were invited to speak or submit comments, and to “consider and recommend potential projects to City Council for the the 2022 Bond program.”

They weren’t asked to set new public policies on public art funding, or any other kind of funding. What reaction would they have received had they proposed reducing drainage spending by, say, 1.5%, to increase public art spending? I would imagine they’d be advised such a proposal was outside the scope of their authority.

They certainly did all they were asked, even if public participation in such meetings, worsened by the pandemic, was less than desired. There were 10 meetings with citizens-to-be-heard sessions that drew 702 residents and led to 572 comments collected. That’s anemic in a city of 1.5 million people.

That’s why such public processes, while valuable and necessary, should not have an undue impact on final outcomes. They simply are not representative.

In the end, the five committees recommended $44.7 million in changes and increased the total number of projects from 166 to 182. In a $1.2 billion bond, that tells me city staff did their due diligence in assembling the bond from a larger list of $6.6 billion in identifiable infrastructure needs in the city.

A city ordinance approved in 2011 under Mayor Julián Castro made it standard operating procedure to allocate 1% of all capital improvement projects to public art. Such spending is a mere fraction of overall infrastructure spending, but its impact is enormous. Cities that invest in public art are inviting destination cities that also value green spaces, activated parks and street life. Cities that don’t invest are pictures of sprawl and parking lots.

As council members spoke in turn Wednesday, some challenged the citizen committees’ decision to cut public art funding, some neglected to speak directly to the topic and one council person supported the cuts.

The mistake is not seeing public art as infrastructure investment. Such thinking is easier behind the wheel of a vehicle in congested traffic. Other, more creative thoughts come to mind while wandering on foot through a city. Public art, then, is seen as infrastructure investment for the soul and spirit..

This 75-foot tall metal structure by San Antonio artist George Schroeder features five metal forms symbolizing the five branches of the military. Titled “Tribute to Freedom” the sculpture sits at the southwest corner of West Military Drive and Highway 90.
This 75-foot metal structure by San Antonio artist George Schroeder, titled Tribute to Freedom, features five metal forms symbolizing the five branches of the military. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The citizens who served on the committees and pushed for more drainage spending are right that inner-city districts, in particular, suffer from disinvestment. The needs are many. Just as drainage investment remained artificially low for decades in these districts, so did investment in sidewalks, trees, parks and, yes, public art.

San Antonio is a city where inner-city residents, the majority of them people of color, were forced to survive with little public investment for a century or more. That began to change some decades ago, but equity will remain an elusive goal for years to come. The last thing we should be doing is adding a single drainage project somewhere on the backs of the city’s working artists, limiting all they do to make San Antonio a better place to live and work.

I hope the city’s staff is instructed to restore public art funding where it was cut, which would total a mere $15.7 million in a $1.2 billion bond. If the cuts are not restored, public art spending will increase from $8.2 million in the 2017 bond to $11.8 million over the next five years. As a percentage, that means San Antonio is heading in the wrong direction.

San Antonio claims to aspire to greatness, but that doesn’t come without sustained investment in transformative projects. Public art is transformative and can be had for a mere penny and a half on the dollar.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.