City Council to take a look at how Urban Art Commission hands out city funded art projects

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- When WREG first reported last month on the Gyro to be built near the Memphis Airport, it set off a flurry. The talk was not just about the massive $308,000 project itself, but who won the contract to create it-- Electroland, a company out of California.

"We want to try to keep as much of those dollars in Memphis as possible," said Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad.

He had already been hearing from local artists concerned about the selection process that the city pays the Urban Art Commission to handle.

"If you are an artist in this community and we are spending taxpayer dollars then we need to keep as much, I believe and I think my colleagues on the Council would agree and I think the administration, we want to try to keep as much of those dollars in Memphis as possible," he said.

The City Council created the agreement with the Urban Art Commission, stipulating that 60 percent of the city funded Public Art projects go to local artists.

The Urban Art Commission said they are meeting that.

"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," Urban Art Commission Executive Director Lauren Kennedy told WREG last month.

Artists like Pam Cobb say the selection process has become flawed, especially on bigger projects.

"My issue is a loss of trust in the Urban Art Commission, which is funded by taxpayer money and should be accountable to the taxpayers, and I no longer trust that process," said Cobb.

Cobb has won art projects with UAC before. Her stainless steel cutouts decorate the wrought iron fencing around the Northeast Memphis Police Precinct. She got that $20,000 contract with UAC back in 2001.

Inside the Cordova Library, her wooden statues have become a favorite. They were created with a $75,000 UAC contract she was awarded in 2004.

"The majority of them are the low-budget projects put out there for Memphis artists," says Cobb.

When Cobb and a partner artist became the finalists for an 88-thousand dollar UAC project at the Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, she says it quickly turned sour.

"We got a letter saying we did not get the project. Well, there were only 3 finalists. The Memphis artists did not get the project. So apparently, I am assuming the project went to one of the out-of-state artists when the call was specifically for a Memphis artist," said Cobb.

WREG obtained a break down of UAC's public art projects since 2003. Of almost $5 million going out, $2.6 million went to local artists. Most of those individual projects cost around $80,000. But the bigger budget ones at Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing and lighting on the Court Avenue Pedestrian Bridge all went to artists out-of-town.

"I do think there is a place for having some national artists, but I think that the threshold, the percentage is good, maybe around 2/3rds should stay here in Memphis. Perhaps it shouldn't be based on just the number of projects, but the dollars amounts. Those are things we will be looking out over the next couple of weeks," said Conrad.

Councilman Conrad said he will now take the issue to the City Council this month. He also plans to have a meeting with the Urban Art Commission and artists in the future.

One solution some artists have mentioned is to include another entity, other the Urban Art Commission, to help administer the Public Art Program.