Following the art dollars at the Urban Art Commission in Memphis

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Imagine a huge giro, circling near the Memphis International Airport. It`s in the works and it's a big project with a big price tag. But who is building it really has some heads spinning.

The giro is a  $308,000, 100-foot tall oval-shaped tower that will be seen far and wide.

"We get anywhere from 30 to 50 responses when we put out an RFP of that size," said Lauren Kennedy, who  heads up the Urban Art Commission.

The Commission has an annual contract with the City of Memphis to put art around the city. They hire the artists, who are paid for their work. The city also sets stipulations.

"We do have a mandate that 60 percent of those projects go to local artists, which we have maintained," said Kennedy.

Yet, the giro project isn`t going to a local artist. Thirty-one artists, including one from Memphis, expressed an interest in the project, but the job was given to Electroland, a company out of California.

"We were looking for somebody first of all that did have experience working with a budget that scale," said Kennedy.

Electroland did the lighting on the Court Avenue Pedestrian Bridge downtown.

"They do this kind of work all over the country. So they had a strong body of past work to show in that qualifications process," Kennedy said.

But watchdog tax groups in Tennessee raised a red flag. Tennessee Tax Revolt said art projects should be funded with private resources, saying there are better uses for public dollars.

"Spending it on education, on fire protection, on police, on infrastructure is more important than something like art," said Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt.

Then when those public dollars leave local communities and are paid to artists in other states, they say that's a slap in the face.

"There are plenty of great artists in Memphis who could be getting that money and you could be funding local artists. That really is another problem with this, " said Cunningham.

Memphis artist Roy Tamboli agreed. He was the only local artist who submitted qualifications to create the giro.

"I never heard a word back," said Tamboli.

He said his other projects around Memphis, including this huge pangaeran disk near Poplar and Union Extended, show his range of work. He has been a full-time artist since 1975, but said he has never once won a project with the Urban Art Commission.

"I think we could make a greater effort to nurture the people that we have here and give them a shot at some bigger projects," said Tamboli.

The Urban Art Commission gets 60 percent of its budget from the City of Memphis. Over the last 3 years that's come to between $300,000 to $500,000 per year.

Kennedy told WREG local artists are hired with that money, like the Memphis artist who created the $65,000 arch walkway at Zodiac Park and one who built the $80,000 quilt creation outside City Hall.

"Since 2002, there have been roughly 80 permanent projects living outdoor funded through that program. Sixty-seven percent of those projects have gone to local artists," said Kennedy.

"But I am not sure 65 percent of the revenue is going to local artists. It looks like the bigger projects are all going out of town," said Tamboli.

Some larger projects do go out of state. The $117,000 Beale Street Landing sculpture was by an artist in Chicago. A Birmingham artist created the $75,000 steel guitar at Levitt Shell, and the $110,000 Tom Lee sculpture on the Mississippi River was the work of a Wyoming artist.

The Urban Art Commission said it is working on getting local artists ready for big projects.

"One of the things in partnership with Arts Memphis and Crosstown Arts is a program called Hustle. It's a free monthly development professional development series for local artists," said Kennedy.

Artist Terry Lynn and his brother Jerry studied mural design with an out of state artist. It landed them the contract to create the $31,000 mural at Halle Stadium.

"It's so many projects that are created by local artists. It's a good thing when artists participate in the arts community especially when it comes to public art. As far as other artists coming into town and doing projects, sometimes it's good to have a little mix," said Lynn. "As an artist, we often can learn, grow and gain some insight from that artist who was selected."

Groups watching tax dollars said they want to see more of those dollars stay at home.

"That's so important with art is that it is an expression of the local cultural. So if you are gonna spend public money on art, for goodness sake, prioritize it so the local artists are the ones who are funded, the ones who receive the money," said Cunningham.

"There is a lot of fantastic talent here. We have a lot of great relationships already with the artist community. There is also a ton of room to grow there," said Kennedy.

The Urban Art Commission said since 2003, 80 projects have been completed with Percent-for-Art funding.
Of that 80, 54 projects have gone to local artists. Approximately 19 projects went to  minorities and 22 to females.