Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Itty bitty City Commission

The Boise City Arts Commission evolves

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To most Boiseans, city hall is just a place to drop off parking ticket payments; it's an impenetrable fortress protected by a moat of department acronyms and insider jargon. In an attempt to get to the heart of the city's new Department of Arts and History, BW braved a mountain of tri-fold brochures and full-color, bullet point strategy maps to get a rundown of what has changed with the old Boise City Arts Commission and how that will affect public art in our fair city.

The BCAC was founded in 1978 through a city ordinance as a vehicle for funding public arts projects. The commission was an all-volunteer group of movers and shakers in the arts community who were appointed by the mayor. Though the BCAC reported to the City Council, it didn't become a division of the Mayor's Office with full-time staff until 1997. Around the same time, BCAC began partnering with the Capital City Development Corp., a public agency that manages urban renewal and redevelopment projects. With guidance from BCAC and funding from tax increment financing—using projected property value increases to pay for renewal projects—CCDC began injecting downtown with innervating shots of public art and culture.

After the city passed the Percent for Art Ordinance in 2001, which required that every municipal capital project have 1.4 percent of their budget earmarked for art, the streets of downtown Boise began to thrive. With the concurrent escalating success of arts organizations like the Boise Art Museum and Ballet Idaho, the need for a more focused city arts department presented itself.

"We were treated like a department in the way we prepared budgets and the way that our staff was managed, but we truly were a division and our name was the Boise City Arts Commission ... which was all confusing," says Karen Bubb, public arts manager for BCAC and interim director of the Department of Arts and History.

And this is where it gets a little sticky. Though divisions and departments sound like they might exercise similar decision-making authority, only the 12 department heads get a prized seat at weekly executive management meetings with the mayor. Without a ticket to this bureaucratic ball, BCAC found it difficult to garner the support it needed for various projects. Adam Park, communications director for Mayor Dave Bieter, says that making BCAC a department was a high priority for the Mayor's Office.

"By making it a department, it would send a clear signal to the public that we value arts and history. It would also give them a certain amount more authority within the city," explains Park.

Earlier this year, BCAC finally matured into a full-grown department, sweeping up the Boise State-funded city historian to become the Department of Arts and History. Though marrying arts and history might seem like an odd move, they overlap in a number of ways. The current city historian, Tully Gerlach, has been working with artists Mark Baltes and Josh Olson to develop public art walking tours on podcasts. These tours combine interesting facts about downtown public art pieces with historically pertinent information about the various buildings and structures that house them.

"It's all this idea of the humanities and culture, even if things aren't purely art oriented or purely history oriented, we're doing the same sort of thing," notes Gerlach. "We're trying to enrich Boise's culture and get people to understand and appreciate more about themselves and their history and the art that's around them."

Though the history division is currently comprised solely of Gerlach, who's a grad student at Boise State, they hope to get funding in the 2009-2010 budget cycle for a full-time position. The arts side of the department is divided into the Visual Arts division and Performing Arts and Events division, which collectively house five employees. All three divisions have their own committees that are staffed by expert volunteers from the community. Some current committee members include Amy Pence-Brown, associate curator at the Boise Art Museum, and David Hale, president of Hale Development and founder of the Linen District.

Every year, the department is allocated money for the City Arts and History Fund. The fund provides two different grants: Cultural Initiatives and the Anchor Fund. The Cultural Initiative grants range from $500 to $2,000 and are available to individuals and organizations in the community who propose public art or history-related projects to enrich the community. Some projects that have received Cultural Initiative grants recently include the Gene Harris Jazz Festival's students of jazz music program, Amy Westover and Jennifer Wood's "The Deal," and the Boise Open Studios Collective Organization.

The more substantial Anchor Fund is reserved solely for the six organizations in town with operating budgets over $400,000. These organizations—Opera Idaho, Boise Contemporary Theater, Ballet Idaho, Boise Philharmonic, Trey McIntyre Project and Idaho Shakespeare Festival—apply to receive guaranteed grants that, this year, range from $6,000 to $15,000. The grant amounts are awarded biennially and determined by a formula that includes budget size and review criteria like "artistic or historical quality or impact." Though six grand would seem to have more bearing in smaller arts organizations than tossed into the coffers of these cultural behemoths, the department insists on supporting what they consider to be the "arts infrastructure" of Boise. Bubb believes that these solid six have been integral to the creation of the Department of Arts and History.

"It's definitely about the maturation of the arts organizations themselves. We're all growing up together, essentially. The city's response is a mirror, or a complement, to what's happening in those individual organizations. It's the beginning of trying to stabilize the role of culture in city government as a way for us to then provide stability and structure for arts in the community," explains Bubb.

But outside of the City Arts and History Fund, the department has been keeping busy with another major project. The Boise WaterShed, an idea conceived 17 years ago by the Public Works Department and activist Donna-Marie Hayes, opened in May and is designed to educate the community on water conservation and sustainability. The city has already sunk close to $300,000 into public art at the WaterShed from the Percent for Art Fund. Some of these high-ticket pieces include Irene Deely's EnviroGuard tree made from salvaged pipe and cast bronze leaves; Amy Westover's recycled rubber tire floor, massive glass windows and exterior carved concrete wall; and Patrick Zentz's giant water molecules that translate wind into percussive sound.

"We did feel that the best use of those public works dollars would be at the Boise WaterShed as this center is going to be a place where adults and children come to learn about water and recycling and the artwork that was integrated into the building," says Bubb.

And though the Department of Arts and History has already kicked into full throttle, considerable change still looms on the horizon. The Mayor's Office is currently interviewing "dynamic and energetic" candidates from around the country to fill the department's vacant director position. Though Bubb is one of a handful of people being considered for the job, the Mayor's Office wants to be thorough in its search for the individual who will lead this department into a new era. This transition could be the first of many arrows in an ever-expanding public art flowchart.

The deadline to apply for grants is August 1 at 5 p.m. For more information, visit cityofboise.org.