After the mayor’s memo Thursday recommending the city temporarily halt its public art program to save money, a few interesting discussions popped up about public art in general. In case you missed them, here’s a roundup of the discussion so far.

(It’s unclear at this point which, or how many, city public art projects would be affected, but the city’s website lists eight projects that were planned.)

This program — requiring the city to invest in public art when they revamp or build new city buildings — is not the city’s only arts expenditure. But it’s interesting to me that many people see cuts like this as symbolic, some indication of the mayor’s general proclivity toward or away from arts.

Reader William Smith said: “This is a short-sighted policy. The small one-time expenditures should not be sacrificed. Art is the soul of society, not a frill.”

Fred Logan said: “I don’t believe it will happen, but it is nice to read the Mayor saying this. Art is not the reason we have government.”

On the Behind the Scene Facebook page, local sculptor Amos Robinson praised the Unified Port of San Diego’s public art program, saying being part of the Urban Trees installation along Harbor Drive “opened so many doors” for his art career.

On Twitter, a conversation erupted Friday when I asked, “What is the point of public art?

At least a few arts-engaged people in town are disgusted with the way San Diego chooses public art. They disparage many pieces we have and lament the ones that got away, including several works from major contemporary artists whose projects got canned due to public outcry. (I wrote about the perspective of Mary Beebe, overseer of UCSD’s Stuart Collection of public art, in this post.) And you can read this 2003 piece from former U-T art critic Robert Pincus for his opinion on this topic in general and the projects San Diego turned down.

So what is the point of public art? A few people shared general philosophies:

Jason Everitt, an analyst at Center on Policy Initiatives and a candidate for City Council in Escondido, said: “Art, though subjective, is believed to contribute to quality of life. Government maintains quality of life. A luxury? Sure.”

Lucas O’Connor added: “If done right, public art creates a sense of commonality for a community. Pride and ownership of the neighborhood, cohesion of purpose and a starting point to join together to address larger issues. Creates shared public space/experience.”

Dave Rolland, CityBeat editor: “It’s something u come upon unexpectedly. It catches you off guard & changes the trajectory of your thinking, however briefly. And, therefore, I’m for it.”

Stephanie Thompson, who does public relations for several local arts organizations, said even the fact there is a debate about public art is “unutterably depressing.”

The conversation meandered at points to priorities. In tough times for budgets, should a city keep funding art? The mayor said no.

What do you think?

Reader Helen Burns sent me an e-mail. “Without art there is no reason to live, hence there is no need for safety,” she said. “Cutting art in favor of safety defeats the purpose of being safe. We need safety to enjoy life. If there is nothing to enjoy, why live? It is absurd!”

Back on Twitter, Everitt chimed in on that question: “Don’t get me wrong, if I’m choosing between drinking water and a giant interconnected web of hubcaps, I go water. But there is value in creating an aesthetically pleasing community. Attracting residents and shoppers has net benefits.

I have more questions. What does it mean to you for public art to be “done right?” Democratic? Chosen by appointed experts? Accessible? Specifically giant sculptures or installations — why should government invest in them? (If you search here on Twitter you can see more of the conversation.)

Some people think the process should be democratic. For the people who support public art, is it worth it if the process means compromising?

The opposite viewpoint is that the city should appoint a panel of experts to choose.

And Scott Lewis, our CEO, suggested each neighborhood that wants public art should organize and choose it itself.

More highlights: lists of popular public art pieces in San Diego ranged from murals and fountains to sculptures in road medians.

Erica Holloway, who was until recently a spokeswoman for county Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, said “I appreciate public art and see its value. But the economy is at the top of people’s minds right now.”

I have a feeling this conversation is just the start. I’d love to hear your thoughts — about something you’ve seen in this roundup, or on arts in San Diego in general. Add your voice to the comments, or you can always e-mail me (my address is below).

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at or 619.325.0531 and follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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