An effort to rein in the amount of money the state spends on art is advancing at the State Capitol, amid renewed concerns over a program that dates to 1999.
A little-known law in Louisiana, which is one of about two dozen states that has some form of the “Percent for Art” program, requires that 1 percent of the total amount spent on large-scale construction projects or renovations go toward art inside or on the grounds of those projects.
As lawmakers have grappled with gaping holes in the current budget and the spending plan that begins July 1, some have pointed to the art program as an example of excess.
“Tax dollars should not go to really high-dollar art when you’re talking about the difficulties we are facing,” said Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, during a discussion of the program in the House Appropriations Committee on Monday.
The Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to advance House Bill 216, which would cap the art program at $100,000 per project or 1 percent of the project’s costs — whichever is less. The bill, which still has several steps of legislative approval to cross, will likely be amended along the way, but most lawmakers agree that now is a time to scale it back. A 2006 auditor’s report previously raised questions about the management of the program.
Several legislators said they would like to see the proposed cap tweaked to create more of a sliding scale.
“I think the idea to look at some kind of scale is an appropriate one,” said Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans. “Maybe we can make some adjustments.”
Rep. Rob Hensgens, an Abbeville Republican who is sponsoring the bill, agreed to work on amending the bill before it hits the House floor for approval.
The program was created to promote the state’s cultural heritage and curate a public art collection that also would create opportunities for Louisiana artists.
About 80 percent of the works commissioned through the program since 2003 have been made by local artists.
But some recent high-profile projects have raised eyebrows — particularly those that have gone to out-of-state artists, including sculptures at the new $1.2 billion University Medical Center in New Orleans. State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, has repeatedly noted in budget hearings that the state paid $350,000 to a Washington-based artist for a decorative garden sculpture there and $750,000 to a Philadelphia artist for colorful hanging artwork.
Hensgens said the hospital artwork appears to indicate that when the program isn’t capped, the state may turn to “celebrity artists” to meet the higher figures.
“You’ve got to get the guy who can do the $350,000 artwork,” he said.
Phil Bogan, head of the state Office of Cultural Development, said it has been working with Hensgens to draft a bill that would still serve the program but save money.
“We don’t want to cripple the program by capping it at $100,000, but we do understand the climate and where we are at with the budget,” he said.