The Main Stream

Jun 6, 2013 2:40 PM by Matthew Schwartz

Should Tucson tax money go only to Tucson artists?

TUCSON - Attention Pima County taxpayers: That new piece of art in downtown Tucson cost you $317,000.

The piece has caused some grumbling in the local arts community, because the artist who was paid those county tax dollars is not from Tucson; he's not from Pima County; he's not even from Arizona. He's from California.

The piece, called "Desert Mosaic", was recently installed on the façade of the new county courts complex, 54 feet above ground. It's consists of 623 square feet of reflective, glass-coated tiles, about 15,000 squares in all, each measuring three inches by three inches.

Gordon Huether, whose studio is in Napa, was chosen for the downtown piece by a panel coordinated by the Tucson-Pima Arts Council. Fifty-six artists applied, nine of them from Pima County. At least a half dozen local artists contacted the News 4 Tucson Investigators to complain that the project was awarded to an out-of state artist, but none of them were willing to talk on-camera, fearing they'd kill their chances for future commissions. However, some local residents had no such fears.

Tucson resident Eric Wilson told us, "I think we should have kept the funds here in Tucson. If it's going to be something representing Tucson, I think the person should have been from Tucson. That just makes common sense to me."

Said Tucson resident Diana Herz, "It definitely should have gone to an artist living in Pima County, if not Tucson. Because it's public art, local art I would say. Or it should be local art.

And Joe Dadey, another Tucson resident, said, "I think it definitely should have gone to a local artist. I mean, it should go into the local economy."

Mary Ellen Wooten is the public arts manager for the Tucson-Pima Arts Council. Wooten says if the arts council's panel decided to choose only local artists, other cities might follow suit, effectively banning Pima County artists elsewhere, and hurting their careers.

Wooten says, "We know that there are local artists who would love to see work going only to local artists. But we have artists in the profession who know that they can't sustain their careers working in only one community."

This isn't the first commission that Huether's been awarded here. He made a sculpture that's been at the Sun Tran facility near Prince Road and I-10 for about two years, for which he was paid $144,000 by the city. Gordon Huether‘s bio lists 60 public art awards nationwide.

On the phone, Huether told us, "To me, it would seem that we would want to choose an artist based on the merits of their past achievements, based on the merits of the concept they are proposing, and not based on what your zip code is."

Despite the complaints we heard from some local artists and residents, those who award the bids feel that by limiting the projects to locals, Pima County would hurt its chances of getting the best piece for a particular project.

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