The Carmel Public Art Advisory Committee is accusing city administrators of repeatedly seeking its input only after public art purchases have already been made or promised, relegating the committee to an “after-the-fact exercise,” according to CPAAC co-chair Julia Saltsgaver.
In an annual update at the Aug. 7 Carmel City Council meeting, Saltsgaver said the situation has left committee members questioning their role and whether the committee should even exist.
“Advice can’t be taken if commitments are already made,” she said.
She listed “My Sixteen-Year-Old Jazz Dreams,” a set of sculptures by J. Seward Johnson; a sculpture of an Indian family to be crafted by the Seward Johnson Atelier; and “Cosmic Flow,” a mural on the Civic Square parking garage; as examples of the city committing to purchase art before receiving input from the committee.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard denied the allegations Aug. 9, saying the processes for city officials to work with the committee, which are outlined in city code, have been “very carefully followed.”
“The problem is the committee never should have been formed,” Brainard said. “I don’t believe in unelected representatives making financial decisions, and there’s not only disagreement with what our art advisors want, but there are a lot of different opinions on that (committee), too. Government doesn’t work well by committee.”
The city council formed the committee in 2018 after the city placed three large, colorful sculptures depicting youth sports in roundabouts along Hazel Dell Parkway. Although some residents provided positive feedback about the installation, many others said they would have preferred to see them placed elsewhere.
Initially, the committee was only tasked with providing input on the location of art, but in 2020, the council approved an ordinance requiring the mayor to seek input from the committee on all city artwork purchases above $5,000.
At the Aug. 7 meeting, Saltsgaver asked the council to review its vision for the committee.
“If the intent is sincere to obtain public input, either embrace the spirit and intent of the ordinance as it’s written or take (what we have learned) in these first six years to put together a better approach and practice,” she said.
Several councilors said they were disappointed to hear that the committee and mayor’s office aren’t seeing eye to eye.
“I was hoping the administration would take some advice from the committee, and that hasn’t happened,” City Councilor Laura Campbell said. “We need public input, and we just haven’t received it.”
City Councilor Sue Finkam, who is running as the Republican candidate for mayor in the November general election, described the current administration’s attitude toward the committee as disrespectful to the committee members, city councilors who appointed them and taxpayers who fund public art.
“You said this administration should either follow along in spirit or revisit (the ordinance) with lessons learned. I think we can do both,” Finkam said to Saltsgaver. “(The mayor) should follow the spirit of what we’re trying to do, and the next administration can blow it up and rebuild it, if that’s what it takes, with input from you and our constituents.”