Response to Public Art piece
Regarding Jessica Leigh Lebos’ June 15th article entitled, “Public Art vs. Public Policy- who holds the power to move forward?”
As Chairman of the Historic Site and Monument Commission, I would like to thank Ms. Lebos and Connect Savannah for shedding light and insight into the importance of public art in Savannah. I would also like to provide some clarification on the role of the Commission.
Savannah has a long tradition of installing public art throughout the city, although most of the public art has been in the form of monuments. For example, along the Bull Street corridor, the squares were occupied by significant monuments by 1910.
Early monuments/public art tended to be inspired by military events and leaders although significant historical events were also commemorated. Savannah’s tradition of fountains, such as the Forsyth Park Fountain (installed in 1858) and the Cotton Exchange Fountain (installed in 1889) provided aesthetic enhancements to Savannah’s public spaces without necessarily commemorating a particular event.
More contemporary forms of public art emerged in the later twentieth century such as the Armillary Sphere in Troup Square (1968) or the Two Worlds Apart Sculpture adjacent to Telfair Square (1991).
Civic leaders saw the importance of public art to Savannah early in its history and created the Historic Site and Monument Commission (HSMC) in 1949. The HSMC is appointed by City Council and is tasked with evaluating proposals for markers, monuments and public art throughout the City.
For proposals on private property, the HSMC is a decision-making body. For proposals on public property, the HSMC makes recommendations to City Council.
In response to the desire from artists for murals to be placed within the city, the “Markers, Monuments and Public Art Master Plan and Guidelines for the City of Savannah” was developed and subsequently adopted by City Council in 2007. This document, available through www.thempc.org, establishes the process and criteria which the HSMC utilizes to evaluate new markers, monuments and public art within the City.
Unlike the article implied, the HSMC is not a division, department or entity of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC). The HSMC holds meetings in the MPC’s conference room and is staffed by MPC staff but it is a Commission created by, appointed by and reports to City Council.
The process for approval of a mural (or any other work of art) is straightforward and consistent- submit an application and supporting materials by the deadline and be heard at the next HSMC meeting. Our commission is made-up of volunteers and has an excellent record of meeting every month on the first Thursday at 4 p.m.
The article stated that, “the laborious nature of the process can be discouraging.” While there is a process, as a public commission, one of the most important things that we do is provide an opportunity for public input and comment in an open and transparent forum. Everyone is welcome to attend, listen and comment.
The article further goes on to state that the HSMC “often sends back projects for revision: a project can take several months to be approved.” That is an erroneous statement.
As a matter of fact, we have approved all but one mural aptlication that we have heard. To state that a project “would have taken literally years to get through all the red tape had it gone through official channels” is simply not supported by the facts.
The HSMC is not opposed to considering opportunities to streamline the review process and in fact conducted a public discussion for that very purpose and will conduct another. However, any amendments must incorporate maintaining community standards and ensuring opportunities for public notice and comment. Additionally, any changes to the Master Plan and Guidelines would need to be reviewed and approved by City Council.
The article goes on to discuss opportunities for a City-sponsored, tax-funded program. Such a program would need the support and approval of City leaders, specifically City Council, to move forward.
Frankly, we would welcome such a program. I would recommend that the art community in Savannah take a proactive role in defining, developing and advocating for what that program might look like.Eli P. Karatassos