Lalley: Public art and potholes all part of the wonder of covering Sioux Falls city government
Topics produce discussion and controversy because they are what people care about, for better or worse.
SIOUX FALLS – When I started working in newspapers I always thought the best job would be covering City Hall.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, it was politics and state government before moving into editing and on it went.
Never say never, I guess. Three decades later I’m covering City Hall – among other things – as part of this wonderful venture that is Sioux Falls Live.
It’s better than I thought.
The reason is, and why I was drawn to it in the first place, is that the stories matter to people. There’s a direct connection between what the city government does and the readers and the viewers.
Sioux Falls is rich right now with the kind of stories people care about.
Consider a couple recent developments, starting with the single-most important topic in the Best Little City in America: Potholes.
Nothing draws as much attention as the quality, construction and width of streets.
I wrote about that phenomenon in more detail last week .
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the council voted 7-1 to move $500,000 into the street budget in the ongoing pothole battle.
Councilor Pat Starr, echoing the sentiment expressed by his colleague Greg Neitzert, called it a “feel good” vote with little practical effect on the number or size of potholes that drivers will encounter.
“I like to feel good,” he said, before voting yes. You can read whatever you want into that vote but Starr clearly wasn’t an enthusiastic supporter of the idea.
Neitzert, the lone dissenter, recognized that his vote was a protest more than anything.
Still, it’s the kind of issue and discussion that people connect with, which is why Councilors Curt Soehl and Sarah Cole suggested the money transfer to begin with. Even if it’s a symbolic action – moving some money from one account to another – it’s doing something. It’s saying to people, “I understand your frustration.”
Moving on… to art!
Nothing says “sincere expression of internal inspiration and creativity” like city government.
So it’s not surprising when the intersection of politics and art takes a turn.
That’s what happened last week when Jeff Eckhoff, the director of planning and development, said in a statement last week that the planned mural on the big concrete wall of the parking ramp on East 10th Street wasn’t going to happen.
Yes, it would have been nice if the submissions that percolated up to the Visual Arts Commission for eventual recommendation would have connected with Mayor Paul TenHaken’s taste and perspective.
It did not.
There is probably an artist, among the 24 who expressed interest in painting the mural, who would have met with a more favorable reaction from the mayor.
But that’s not how the process was designed to work.
As Kellen Boice, executive director of the Sioux Falls Arts Council, explained to me, it was “uncharted territory” for her group. The Arts Council agreed to vet the original group of artists and then forward finalists to the Visual Arts Commission.
It’s easy to get crossed up in who does what in this scenario. To clarify, these are the two groups involved.
The Sioux Falls Arts Council is a nonprofit organization that receives some funding from the city. The group’s mission is to support artists in the community.
The Visual Arts Commission is a seven-member volunteer board within city government. The members are appointed by the mayor, including a representative from the Arts Council – currently Boice – and a practicing visual artist.
The Visual Arts Commission’s role is to advise the mayor, city council and other city government officials. The goal is to develop visual art for community buildings and spaces, such as the huge wall of a parking ramp left exposed by a stalled development project in the middle of downtown.
Now that we have that cleared up, let’s get back to the process.
Ah yes, process.
This wasn’t a commissioned piece, as Boice had to explain to me, which could include parameters on the theme or content.
In this case, the intent was to allow the chosen artist “control the narrative,” as Boice put it.
It’s a great idea when you’re fostering and supporting artistic endeavors in your community.
For a government, for people who want other people to approve of what they do, it’s risky.
But you have to know that going in.
Rejection from the wider public is always a possibility. In my experience uncertainty is the artist’s constant companion, whether they are painters, musicians, sculptors, writers or quilters.
There’s always risk in art.
City government is inherently about mitigating risk.
We may never know the content of what was intended as a short-term mural, that was recommended by the Visual Arts Commission and rejected by the mayor.
Which highlights a more perplexing theme.
We may never know if the mural in question was patently offensive to one or more groups of people in the community.
We may never know if the mayor was reacting to some real or perceived public consequence if he approved it.
With public art comes public scrutiny.
Artists usually want that.
Government usually does not.
I offer no particular solution to this inherent conflict, except to say… I love this job.