Editorial: At what cost public art?

The announcement of the impending installation of another public sculpture in Palmerston North has once again sparked a flurry of breathless criticism about the wisdom of spending ratepayers' money on art.

Public debate about how councils spend money is healthy, but this particular discussion has become tired and largely pointless.

The critics seem to have forgotten, or have always been ignorant of, the context surrounding last week's announcement that a sculpture will be erected on the corner of The Square and Broadway Ave. So, let's look at it from a broader perspective.

More than five years ago, the Palmerston North Public Sculpture Trust was formed to make the central city are more vibrant, interesting place. The trust, comprising a handful of community-minded people, would raise funds to commission 10 artworks in 10 years, and the Palmerston North City Council agreed to match its fundraising dollar dollar, up to a maximum of $50,000 per sculpture. The funding was budgeted for in the council's long-term plan and the city has since acquired seven public assets at less than half the cost than if it had undertaken such a project by itself.

Naturally, the sculptures are loved by some and loathed by others. What seems beyond argument, though, is that their presence indicates that Palmerston North is a city that cares about how its public spaces look and feel. They show that this city refuses to be typecast as a boring, provincial town lacking sophistication and culture.

Of course, it's difficult to place a pricetag on the intangible benefits public art bring to a city, but detractors argue that up to $50,000 of ratepayers' money is certainly not a sound investment. They're entitled to their point of view, but it's one than should be put in context.

While $50,000 is a large sum of money for any individual - more than what most people earn in a year - it is a pittance compared with the annual revenue and expenditure of the city council. In the 2011-12 financial year, the council's total expenses were more than $110 million. It collected almost $69m in rates and owned assets valued at more than $1.3 billion.

That's not to say that, just because the city council is a large organisation that counts revenue and expenditure in the tens of millions, it should throw around $50,000 frivolously. But when a nonprofit organisation came to the city's leaders and said it would raise half the funds for 10 public sculptures and do all the work commissioning and installing them, was the council really so foolish to pounce on that opportunity?

There will always be people who say that it was, but history is certain to say otherwise.

Manawatu Standard