Beautifying the urban environment by public works of art is a noble goal. But the enterprise is cheapened if it is done at the expense of the artists' peace of mind - or their financial security.
Salt Lake City is facing an artists' rebellion in its "Percent for the Arts" program, in which one percent of construction funds is set aside to create public art works.Deficiencies in the city's arts contract were brought to public awareness this week when the city stopped a magnificent crosswalk project at Pierpont Ave. The crosswalk is part of a $530,000 curb and gutter project funded by the city's Redevelopment Agency and property owner. It will be a wonderful addition to the city, with a fountain, benches, and inscribed poetry.
The project was halted, literally after foundations were poured, because its designers - sculptors Tom Tessman and Stephen Goldsmith - refused to sign the city contract. As interpreted by lawyers, the contract would hold the artists responsible for any accident that ever happens at the crosswalk, if anyone blamed the art work for the accident.
Regardless of who eventually would be found at fault, the contract requires the artists to immediately begin paying legal fees. That would bankrupt anyone.
The ridiculous aspect is that once the artists were bankrupt, the city - whose project it is, after all - would be held liable.
But that will not help the artists or ease their fears.
This isn't the first time Salt Lake artists have balked at the contract.
Willy Littig, a sculptor whose work graces several area parks, said, "I probably signed more of those contracts than the rest of the artists put together." Maybe that was stupid, he added.
"I'm currently on hold on three contracts, again because of the liability."
He worries that the contract is so vague that it will be dangerous to him. "I have asked to put things (in the contract), like a date to terminate the liability; even that would have helped me.
"Once the city had accepted the work and signed off that it was matching the design requirements, that it was structurally strong, that it met whatever the engineering department wanted, that it was on a base that met all the needs, that it was safe and was made with good materials - then we should shake hands, and I say congratulations to them and they say thank you to me. And the liability, as the ownership, is theirs."
To meet a $4,100 contract he had with the city, he was forced to buy an additional insurance policy for $600, just to cover the work while it was in his studio and while it was being installed. It doesn't cover the "forever after" Dracula clause the city throws in.
Barnardo Florez-Sahagun, who worked with Littig on three sculptures for city projects, said of the indemnity clause, "Well, I don't think it is fair, that's for sure. Some of the commissions are so minuscule, $1,200, it would be very impossible for many people to be able to pay insurance and produce a piece."
Goldsmith pointed out that he and Tessman were basically volunteering their services, putting much of their fees back into the construction material. "If there was any left over, that was great."
He carries insurance for his sculpture, but not the kind of liability coverage needed to co-design a public work built by a contractor. Insurance companies won't even cover that sort of thing "because artists aren't licensed."
Artists aren't traffic engineers; that's why the city engineering department examines the plans. And this review certainly gives the city legal liability.
Thomas Kass, who teaches in the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Utah and is a member of the Salt Lake Art Design Board, said the clause puts board members in a difficult position, "to ask artists to indemnify themselves for life."
The board is the body that recommends artists for the projects.
It's an especially rotten demand because the artists have no control over how well the city maintains their work over the next several decades. Poor maintenance itself could lead to accident suits.
"I think it (the clause) puts a chill on the willingness of people to do things," Kass said. He thinks some sort of compromise is possible; for example, limiting artists' liability to the amount of their commissions.
All involved believe the city will be able to work out an acceptable contract.
Let's hope so. When a city takes it upon itself to beautify public areas with art works, it should do it fairly.