Sunday, July 7, 2013

Speaking of Public Art.....Who Needs It?

Public art, Las Vegas.  Can-oe believe it?  
I just returned from our annual family vacation, visiting Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Las Vegas in a rented, fire engine red Dodge Caravan.  Throughout the trip, from the cities to the suburbs to the little isolated cowboy towns, we took note of the variety of public art.  It stands out to us because in Southern New Jersey, where we live, public art is seen as a frivolous luxury.

In a May 23rd article in The Press of Atlantic City, New Jersey State Senator Jim Whelan "took aim at the estimated $12 million behind the art initiatives during his opening remarks Wednesday at the East Coast Gaming Congress. Whelan, D-Atlantic , said he’s frustrated to see dollars being spent on the arts when financing to advance the city is becoming more scarce.

“The question is: Is anybody asking for art? I don’t think so,” Whelan said."

Hey Mr. State Senator, can I have some art?  I'd like some art please.  Thank you.

The Press continued, "Whelan said he has a hard time seeing how the market from New York City to Washington, D.C. — the prime area targeted by the Alliance’s “Do AC” campaign — would want to come to Atlantic City for art when they live closer to bigger and better artistic destinations."  

So Jim Whelan, a New Jersey State Senator, discounts the citizens of his own state when it comes to Atlantic City because it's really all about keeping the New York / DC crowd happy.  Hey, good luck with the re-election!

A week ago I drove into Las Vegas and saw public art welcoming us on their freeways -  their FREEWAYS.  According to, "There’s a enough public art in and around the city to make a fun trip out of seeing it all."  Hey, but that's Vegas.  Who need art when you've got the Atlantic frickin' Ocean, right?  Badda-bing!

Whelan's not the only art-hater at the state level. The Press reports, "Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, echoed Whelan’s stance, “Enough is enough with the arts,” Amodeo said. “The arts are good. The arts will draw people, but we’re not the Smithsonian Institute.”

Badda-BING, Johnny!  

Being the only professional artist in Port Norris, a town of 1800 people, I can't count how many times a person has gone out of their way to express their suspicious contempt for art, all while making friendly conversation.  There is  no art in their homes, as it is seen as a haughty pursuit. "Folks around here don't want that.", they tell me.   They see no value in it, but offer me the backhanded compliment, "It must be nice to sit around drawing all day."  If they saw my paycheck, they'd trade their kid's GameBoy for a sketch book.      

Being poor or working class does not disqualify anyone from enjoying art.  Jim Whelan demonstrated that even an educated man (he's a school teacher!) can maintain a deep seated ignorance when it comes to art.   I can go to Philadelphia, 50 miles west, and take a bus tour of the inner city murals, but 50 miles east, in Atlantic City, they don't get it.

I grew up in South Jersey, and left when I was 18 to go to CalArts. I had no art education, could not tell a Degas from a Picasso from a Monet, despite having gone to a prestigious prep school (with no art classes!).  Throughout elementary school, art was never  anything but a coloring session.  So how could a kid be expected to value art as an adult?  Generations have gone through our local schools without art education, and the impact on the community shows not only in the lack of public art, but in the general lack of aesthetics in businesses and homes. 

Cal Arts opened my eyes on HOW to look at the world.  Design teacher Bill Moore told us to study trees. "The best designer is nature." he would say.  It took me a very long time to wrap me head around that.  If everyone in school learned principles of design and color theory just as they would math and science, then even if they weren't artistically inclined, they would have the ability to see the world on some artistic level.  Then maybe the Jim Whelans in charge would shut up and locals, when it comes to public art, would say, "Folks around here really want that!"  


  1. The politicians should also look and see just how much money the arts bring to the cities of Toronto, New York and San Francisco, for starters. I believe that eight tourist dollars are spent for every one spent on the arts.
    The arts are also food for the soul, some of the best is done by school children before they are too indoctrinated. But imagination, creativity, and learning mean that the kid might be able to think for him or herself as an adult. Think about it: is that kind of mind welcome in the USA today? thought not.