Ending subsidy for public art

The pathetic politics of budget cuts are on full display in Washington, thanks to the sequester that’s scheduled to take effect Friday.

Every bit of government spending has beneficiaries who’ll fight to keep their gravy; lobbyists who worked hard to obtain or preserve the funding; and politicians who voted for the spending and can’t afford to suggest it isn’t necessary. Cries of cruelty and devastation tend to carry the day whenever anyone proposes trimming any expenditure, no matter how small.

The game is the same at the state and local levels. Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers, who cut his teeth as a fiscal watchdog as one of the state Assembly’s “Mean 15” back in 2003, said during last week’s council meeting that he would introduce an ordinance to repeal the city’s “1 percent for the arts” funding standard.

Over the past 10 years, the city has set aside 1 percent of all capital spending to commission and install public art displays. The program has put more than $1.3 million worth of public art around the city, much of it downtown. But most of that spending came before the Great Recession. The city has clamped down on capital spending in the years since, so much so that just $3,000 was set aside last year for public art.

“In order to support that, the council would have had to have been so flush with money they had a hard time figuring out what to do with it all,” Mr. Beers said. As it is, the city is contemplating public safety cuts and still hasn’t identified how it will pay for millions of dollars worth of needed maintenance work in the years ahead.

But no cuts ever come easy. The public art subsidies were created during the tenure of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose wife, Carolyn, now holds that office.

“I am 100 percent supportive of funding for the arts, and I am interested in continuing the dialogue,” Carolyn Goodman wrote in an email to the Review-Journal’s Benjamin Spillman. “You can’t have a city of any value if you don’t have arts and culture.”

But would there be no art without the subsidy? Of course not. Downtown Las Vegas has a growing Arts District and a new cultural hub in The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

A vote to eliminate the subsidy is not a vote against public art. It’s a vote to better prioritize spending and reduce the city’s obligations during a time of continuing fiscal hardship. Mr. Beers’ proposal has merit.

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