Johnson County Commission Downsizes Public Art Funding

Nov 3, 2017

Artist Suikang Zhao created 'We Have a Dream' in 2011 for the Youth and Family Services Center in Olathe, Kansas, as part of Johnson County's One Percent for Art Program.
Credit courtesy of the artist

The Johnson County, Kansas, Board of County Commissioners this week voted to reduce funding for proposed public art projects and for the county's public art program itself. 

In addition to public art programs in six cities, Johnson County has a One Percent for Art Program, established in 2006 to include art in major building projects.

Arts advocates, including Kansas Representative Jerry Stogsdill of Prairie Village, asked the commission to continue support for the program. 

Stogsdill urged the commissioners to "remain strong in your commitment to the arts and arts funding." The arts have an impact on economic development, he argued, "not only in Johnson County, but across the state." 

But on Thursday, commissioners passed an ordinance by a 6 to 1 vote to cap spending for public art at $500,000, down from $1 million, for the new county courthouse in Olathe. (County residents approved a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax in November 2016 to fund the estimated $193 million project, which is slated for completion in 2020.)

"I will state my objections to this artificial amount," said fifth district Commissioner Michael Ashcraft. "I will be voting against it not because the reduction doesn't make sense, but the amount itself does not make sense to me."

"I have been and continue to be a supporter of the arts. I am also a businessman," countered Commissioner Mike Brown, who represents the sixth district. "So in cutting back from a million dollars on an expenditure at the courthouse to $500,000 is good. It's still $500,000." 

Commissioners also endorsed changing the wording of the public art program by a unanimous vote. The maximum funding for all future art projects will be $500,000, and a trust fund for public art will be eliminated. According to assistant county manager Joe Waters, the fund, created for donations and grants, has not "come into play in the 11 years" since the program was created. 

Two commissioners, first district Commissioner Ron Shaffer and fourth district Commissioner Jason Osterhaus, voted against another ordinance to eliminate about $200,000 in public art for the new $21 million County Coroner/Medical Examiner's facility in Olathe, also funded by last year's sales tax. 

"This is another public building and if we start eliminating arts projects for some of our buildings, this will be a road to allow that to happen in other future buildings," cautioned Commissioner Shaffer. "So I’m going to vote against this particular issue." 

The proposal passed by a majority vote. 

Updated 11/06, 3:15 p.m. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.