Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'll scratch your back, you stab mine

Frequently emails come in to the Department of Fine Arts at Winthrop from public entities. These emails are distributed to the Fine Arts faculty as urgent pleas for artistic help. It could be a school or group seeking volunteer teaching help for an art session or camp. It could be a public assistance facility seeking someone to donate a mural. It could be a group seeking art donations for a charity auction. Sometimes the teacher/artists are asked to volunteer their time and talents, and sometimes the public entity asks for student volunteers. The idea is that students will work for free and that the professor will find a way to modify his/her functional curriculum in order to allow the students to receive class credit and assessment for their free work.

In my years at Winthrop I’ve witnessed the Fine Arts Faculty bend over backwards to help in some way each time they have been asked. Not only have they donated, volunteered, and sweated upon request; they’ve also organized and executed their own charitable ideas. The Department of Fine Arts planned and held a canned food drive in December for the needy. This entire academic year has been organized under the theme of raising awareness of the plight of the homeless and the 21st Annual Juried Undergraduate Exhibition scheduled for April requires all entries to address the idea of “Voices of Homelessness”.

The University also has a history of using Public Art to not only highlight student and professional artists, but also to beautify and benefit the surrounding community. Several Public Art Projects on campus have been placed in high profile areas to deliberately offer views to the public as they walk, jog, and drive near the campus. The tall chairs (or “Sweet Dreams”) on the front campus lawn adjacent to Oakland Avenue offer one such Public Art experience….and one that is personally important to me, since I know the artist and he’s a nice guy.
One of the reasons Public Art became a regular feature to the Winthrop campus is the addition of Shaun Cassidy to the University faculty in the fall of 1999. Shaun was an accomplished sculptor who specialized in large scale sculpture and Public Art projects. It was Shaun and Tom Stanley who began the Public Arts Initiative at the school in order to create a way for student art to be exhibited outside of the traditional campus galleries and to be made available to a wider viewing audience. In recent years Cassidy and Stanley have joined their personal creative forces to create Public Art projects in cities and counties in North and South Carolina offering proof of their dedication to bringing beauty and enjoyment to the taxpaying public.

The City of Rock Hill, home of Winthrop University, recently worked to beautify a very public eyesore in the Water Treatment plant on one of the busiest roads in town. As a part of that project it was proposed that they would spend $250,000 on a water fountain feature but eventually that plan was scaled back. It was later proposed that the city keep $200,000 of that planned beautification spending and offer a substantially lesser sum of $50,000 to Winthrop’s Department of Fine Arts in return for the completion of a student Public Art project to be completed this summer. This project would be planned, created, and installed by sculpture students with the help of Shaun Cassidy and Tom Stanley. In return the Department of Fine Arts would take a significant step in trying to recover a small portion of the funding they’ve lost this academic year as a result of Public Education Budget cuts from Columbia. These cuts have forced the department to trim part time faculty members, eliminate classes, and scramble to find new ways to raise the money they need to maintain the high level of standards Winthrop has always had for their students. This money would cover the materials and expenses related to the Water Treatment project and any excess funds would go directly into the department budget – a budget that will likely see more reductions in the coming months.
The approval of this plan earlier this month was met with public scorn. Taxpayers questioned the spending of $50,000 on Public Art at a time when South Carolina is in a financial crisis. So much opposition came so quickly that within five days of the original approval vote, the City Council decided to suspend using money from the Hospitality tax (a tax set aside specifically for “tourism related upgrades” to the city) and will instead see if they can get groups and individuals to donate the funds needed to complete the project. This would allow the public and the city to receive a Public Art installation without actually spending any money. Free art. A formal vote to officially suspend using public money for this project will take place on February 23.

Though I have some very strong opinions about public art and this project in particular, I have worked hard to eliminate my opinions from this entry. I have presented factual information received first hand from Department emails over the last six years and from the Rock Hill newspaper. I am aware that our country is waist-deep in a recession. I am aware that public officials are somewhat infamous for misusing taxpayer funds. Yet I am also aware that artists are among those suffering in these economically troubled times. For the first time in seven years, I sold absolutely no artwork last year. And yet several times last year I was asked to give away my time and my artwork for free. How is this not a faux pas? Would you be embarrassed to ask your dentist to donate his efforts on your root canal for free? I mean, that’s a beautification project, right? What about your local City Council or School Board. Perhaps each member could be asked to donate their salary this year or even this month and work for free….for the good of the public. Exactly. So why would you expect an artist to work for free?

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