How much art does Elgin own and what policies should there be concerning any works the city's Cultural Arts Commission may commission?
Those are the questions the 10-member Cultural Arts Commission hopes to answer as it works toward putting together an official plan for the city's publicly owned and supported art.
By a 9-0 vote Wednesday, the City Council gave the OK to the commission to come up with a public art plan for the council's consideration.
"I hope this plan can be expedited quicker than seven months," Council member John Prigge said, given that the fate of "American Nocturne" remains in limbo.
Amanda Harris, staff liaison to the commission, said the plan would need that long for public meetings planned for input. As for the mural, if the plan isn't ultimately accepted by the Council the matter of what to do with it would go back before the commission to decide what to do with it.
"It's about the direction of cultural arts in Elgin. That's pretty important," Council member Terry Gavin said of coming up with a public art plan.
Council member Tish Powell serves on the commission as the council liaison. Wednesday morning, she said the idea for coming up with a plan had been discussed 5 to 6 months ago and long before the recent controversy stirred concerning the group's commission of "American Nocturne," a mural conceived by David Powers and painted by others in 2007.
"That situation demonstrates the need to have a public arts policy," Powell said.
The source material for "American Nocturne" is a black and white photo taken in August 1930 in Marion, Indiana in which a group of white people are standing in front of the lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. "American Nocturne" is based on the crowd portion of the photo.
While some people may have known the source long ago, knowledge of the source material only became widely known to locals in May when Elgin Community College student Richard Furr posted about it on the "What's Happening in Elgin?" Facebook page after he and a friend figured out the source material themselves.
The work had been hanging in a downtown walkway for years, but the attention led to the work being moved indoors, and, after two public meetings, to the work being put into storage.
What eventually will be done with Powers' mural won't be discussed until after the plan is put in place, Powell said. That plan would be done at no cost to the city and would take 6 to 7 months to create and be back to the City Council to consider for approval.
According to Powell, the commission has an annual budget of about $75,000. The money is used to issue grants to local arts groups, to pay for events the commission directly sponsors and to issue small grants to individual artists.
Powell said part of the process would include looking at what policies and plans other towns have regarding public art. Having such in place could help the commission seek grants from outside sources to bring art to Elgin.
As some art that belongs to the city is kept in storage, Powell said the plan might come up with suggestions for rotating pieces in and out of public view.
As for the art inventory Powell said that the commission does have a binder of information pertaining to pieces the city has — but that it didn't appear to be maintained with any frequency.
According to material provided for the Wednesday meeting, the inventory would be completed by commission members using mobile phones and tablets with information inputted into the city's Salesforce platform, which it uses for its 311 system and across departments.
A database would be created and made accessible to the public with location maps and histories of the artworks and artists where possible.
Powell also said she has been seeking clarification on how art is provided by Art for All, a group supportive of public art and local artists once chaired by Mayor Dave Kaptain's wife, Sandy.
Sandy Kaptain explained that the Art for All would request, and when it received permission, display art in city buildings — using its own hanging systems, doing all the work, with no charge to the city, and noting on the artist cards as well as to city staff, that any purchases of displayed art were to be made through the artist and a purchaser.
Wednesday morning, Mayor Kaptain said he served on the commission for several years starting in 2005, shortly after he was first elected to the City Council. He said the inventory to which Powell referred most likely had been compiled originally sometime in the 1990s by then-commission member Jean Keltner.
Kaptain said the issue of having a plan and policy for commissioning art had been discussed when he was on the commission, too, and on other occasions.
"The question that bogs it down is the matter of what would or wouldn't be censorship," Kaptain said.
Kaptain said what was clear when he was on the commission — and what he and others worked to do — was to bring more accountability to the body for doling out money. That eventually led to creating a point system, Kaptain said, similar to what is used for other types of grants awarded through the city.
The commission was formed in the early 1990s, and chiropractor/Elgin Community College board member/arts enthusiast Clare Ollayos served on it from 1991 through 1997, she said.
"We were just getting into ways to become eligible to apply for grants from the Illinois Arts Council," Ollayos said.
With the arrival of the Grand Victoria Casino, the commission wound up being funded from casino tax money set aside each year in the city's budget, she said.
Among early projects were grants or commissions for the metal American flag on Walton Island, the pioneer statue near the Kimball dam, work on the Lords Park fountain, restoring public sculptures even at one time granting money to the Elgin Symphony and for its broadcasts on WMFT-FM. (The ESO funding became a line item in the city's budget, and in 2013, the orchestra signed a 15-year, discounted lease with the city to use the Hemmens Cultural Center and to pay back rent it owed.)
Ollayos said she wasn't sure how, but it appeared that for a time last decade or so procedures for grants might have become less formal and looser that when she served or more recently.
Kaptain suggested the group might look into if the city should auction off pieces in its collection. And the group might also want to look at policy for performances it commissions and uses city money to do so.
As Elgin works to be seen as an arts community, "Coming up with a plan is not an easy issue," Kaptain said.
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