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Eye of the Beholder

Boise City Council disregards panel's suggestions on who should get fire station commissions

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Patricia Walsh preaches the gospel of public art for a living. Walsh, the national public art program manager for Washington, D.C.-based American for the Arts, was in Boise on Oct. 16 for the Northwest Public Art Conference, where she talked about the need of an "even playing field" and "fair selection process" when determining the fate of public art projects.

As Walsh spoke at Boise City Hall, dozens of artists from throughout the western United States nodded in agreement, aware their livelihoods often depend on city officials.

Yet only three days prior in the Boise City Council chambers—the same room where Walsh spoke—elected officials overruled their own staff's recommendations on an art project to beautify new/renovated fire stations. The council went a "locals-only" route, even though the call went out to artists outside of Idaho.

Tubiolo was excited about working with the city of Boise and, at least at first, the feeling seemed to be mutual. A panel of Boise evaluators put Tubiolo near the top of the list of proposals from artists throughout the western U.S. to design and install their work at four fire stations in Boise, and with good reason: Tubiolo's experience includes having public artwork at fire stations. He said he was particularly pleased a representative of the Boise Fire Department had been on the art selection panel and shared the competing proposals with his battalion of firefighters.

"I was told that they loved my work and wanted it for one of Boise's fire stations," Tubiolo said.

However, it wasn't meant to be. The City Council bounced Tubiolo's ranking from the panel. The council also skipped the top six proposals, choosing a pair of proposals from Boise-based artists, which they pushed to the top of the list.

In an internal memo from city Purchasing Manager Colin Millar, council members explained their decision "based upon the fact that we went out for a bond to get the stations built."

Millar was referring to the Boise City Fire Safety Bond, which passed in November 2014 with a commanding 76 percent of Boise votes. The bond earmarked more than $10 million to upgrade or replace four aging fire stations.

"There was a feeling on the part of the council, especially in a case where we approached voters for bonding authority, that it was important that those funds confirmed by voters be spent locally," said City Council President Maryanne Jordan, explaining the decision to give preference to local artists. "This was not a specific rejection of any artists."

Meanwhile, Karen Bubb, the public arts manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History, said the art was not shackled to the public bond.

"While I understand the council's reasoning, I don't agree with that," said Bubb. "But in the end, on any public art project that we do, the council has the last word."

Bubb, a champion of local art, found herself in a delicate situation when discussing the selection of public art for the fire stations. Not only is it her profession, as an artist, it's her passion.

"The city of Boise is clearly committed to local artists throughout our entire program: 92 percent of current projects totaling over $1.4 million are contracted with local artists," Bubb wrote in a letter to the council in an effort to sway their decision back to the panel's recommendations. "In my opinion, it is unnecessary to unseat the most qualified candidates for these fire public art commissions due to local preference, once you see the data that demonstrates our overall commitment to local artists."

Standing by their decision, council members even turned to their lawyer to make sure they hadn't violated any city rules or laws.

"The bottom line is that the City Council did a great job," said Boise legal counsel Joshua Leonard.

"There were at least three places in the city's request for qualifications that reserved the right for the city to reject any and all applications," Jordan pointed out.

While the RFQ and the council's vote to push aside the panel's recommendations may have been legal, Bubb said she was more concerned about the decision sending a troubling message.

"It's important for us not to be an isolationist city," Bubb said. "If all of the [public art] opportunities in Boise went to local artists, then my colleagues in other communities would call me [to] the table and ask, 'Why should we allow any of your artists to compete for our projects?"

In her letter to the council, Bubb was even more straightforward, writing, "This decision will impact our ability to attract qualified candidates for future national calls. And it also has the potential to negatively impact Idaho artists who apply in regional or national competitions, because if other programs see Boise and Idaho as isolationist, they may overlook or preclude Idaho artists from applying to their competitions."

Meanwhile, Tubiolo said he was disappointed but not terribly surprised when he looked at the calendar.

"Don't you have a city election coming up in a few weeks? This is a troubling indicator because that vote is probably being used as a political tool for campaign purposes. This is very curious that the council would do this just a couple of weeks before a vote for their approval," said Tubiolo. "But more importantly, I'm sad that I can't work with the city. I would have loved to work on your new fire stations."

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