Coeur d’Alene city staff are crafting an ordinance amendment authors hope will prevent a future public relations nightmare like the recent Marker #11 calamity.
City Administrator Troy Tymesen, who will deliver a draft of the amendment to the Arts Commission at today’s monthly meeting, said the new language will more clearly emphasize the council’s responsibilities and authority over all public art, including its responsibilities over special projects that wound up introducing Marker #11 into the Coeur d’Alene lexicon.
“The current language wasn’t quite clear about the City Council’s responsibilities when it comes to special [inclusions] like ArtCurrents,” he said Monday. “This new language simply re-emphasizes the fact that the buck is going to stop with the electeds, as it always has.”
City Council has had the final say on all publicly funded art since the Arts Commission’s inception, as public art is financed by tax dollars. But one program — ArtCurrents, which circulates different pieces throughout the Pacific Northwest — is not publicly financed. Instead, different pieces for sale remain on public display for at least a year at a time. If sold, the community in which the art is displayed gets a cut of the proceeds.
As a result, Tymesen said, a loophole emerged, one that allowed Marker #11 to slip through without City Council review.
“That interpretation of our ordinance made it so the city never officially reviewed that particular piece,” he said. “We looked back, and we can’t find where we actually reviewed or voted on it.”
Marker #11, an anti-coal industry piece by Bellingham, Wash., artist John Zylstra, had been perched along the pond at Riverstone Park for two years. It drew the ire of Cold War veterans, conspiracy theorists and many others in November when observers noted a Soviet hammer and sickle emblazened on its metal frame. Amid a public uproar — and an equally vocal public show of support for the Zylstra piece and the Arts Commission that approved it — Mayor Steve Widmyer swiftly ordered the tower-like political commentary removed from its Riverstone home. Within three days, the sculpture was sitting idle in city storage.
The incident sparked a cavalcade of fiery debates and letters to the editor. Right-wing activists claimed Marker #11’s city-backed installation marked a conspiracy to push a liberal United Nations agenda. Longtime residents ravaged one another on social media about government’s role in publicly funded art and the dangers of censorship. And irate retired veterans chastised the Arts Commission, demanding apologies and resignations along the way. One such demand came from Dr. Norman Leffler, who spent his service overseas in the Air Force planning for worst-case nuclear scenarios against the Soviet Union during the height of Cold War tensions.
“I call on all the [Arts] commissioners and everyone involved with putting up Marker #11 to resign,” Leffler admonished Nov. 26 in front of the Arts Commission.
The criticism took on a more criminal tone, however, when an online comment escalated the rhetoric, calling on all involved with Marker #11’s installation to be shot.
The controversial situation also drew out an unexpected confrontation between Widmyer and Arts Commission chair Jennifer Drake. At a December City Council meeting, Drake lambasted the mayor for his unilateral decision to remove Marker #11 from public view, calling the incident’s aftermath “inexcusible.”
“Remarkably,” Drake observed, “the reaction didn’t even include contacting me, as chair of the commission, for feedback, or seeking immediate discussion at next week’s monthly commission meeting. There was no waiting for a comment from the artist. There was no waiting for a comment from the Arts Commission. Instead, we got to watch this all play out on social media and in the pages of the Coeur d’Alene Press. Between the moment this issue was brought to my attention ... to the piece of art being removed without any official discussion, less than 72 hours had passed.”
Drake added that circumventing the city’s process during a public relations crisis was disrespectful to the volunteers on the Arts Commission and the selection committee, and a symptom of a more dangerous threat to the community.
“The last week has proven to me that an art piece with historical symbols on it is unacceptable,” she said, “but threatening the lives of the volunteers who curate our public art collection is acceptable. That ridiculing art is fine, but recklessly ridiculing other members of this community is even better. That whatever makes us feel uncomfortable should be removed or silenced immediately and without civil discourse, including people. If you ask me, this way of thinking is far more detrimental to our community and way of life than any statue or symbol could ever be.”
Widmyer said Monday he was not aware of the proposed amendment, as the matter has not yet come to the City Council. He did, however, stand by the commission despite the tumultuous times of the not-too-distant past.
“We have outstanding public art in Coeur d’Alene that’s been made possible by the support of our citizens, the City Council and the great work of the volunteers on our Arts Commission,” Widmyer said.
Drake did not comment for this story. However, Arts Commission vice chair Ali Shute said that, while she was cautiously optimistic the city and the Arts Commission could come up with safeguards to prevent future controversies like the Marker #11 incident, she was concerned about the potential for an overreaching government blurring from steward to censor.
“My only concern and what I’d want to make sure to prevent within the language of the amendment, is that the City Council could say, ‘You can’t have that art,’ because it doesn’t fit into that little block of what art should be. My concern is that the city could cross that line of saying what is or isn’t art.”
The most recent draft of the new language, if approved, would broaden the City Council’s scope of review by explaining when the city could intervene, should another Marker #11 crop up in the future. One paragraph in the amendment all but guarantees that:
“Proposals for [new], or existing, Works of Art that include subject matter such as the apparent representation of violence, inappropriate nudity, denigration of individuals or cultures, desecration of significant cultural symbols, and similar matters will be reviewed for their appropriateness for public display,” the draft reads.
Shute said the lessons of Marker #11 are still on everyone’s minds, and that the entire incident could have been handled more artfully.
“It’s disturbing that we have a process set up that wasn’t honored,” Shute said. “It makes us feel less valuable as an Arts Commission that our process and our voices were ignored.”
That said, Shute — who also serves as executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Arts and Culture Alliance — said emphasizing the responsibilities of Arts Commission and City Council alike could benefit the community at large, particularly by helping the general public better understand the artist’s intent.
“We [in the Arts Commission] were more privy to the artist’s intent than the public,” she said. “Actually, that’s something the Arts Commission is working on: coming up with a plan that will communicate an artist’s intent. We’re working on establishing a QR code system on each piece that people can scan to get a better understanding of the meaning behind the art.”
While Shute was adamant that censorship is not one of Coeur d’Alene’s core values, she said she would welcome language that more clearly quantifies what those values might be and how a particular piece could violate them.
“Just defining what we’re looking for is good,” she said. “If those definitions maybe determine what our community’s philosophies want to represent to the world, then the selection committee would maybe decide not to recommend a piece to the Arts Commission. I think it’s just putting it in the forefront of everybody’s minds, that these are things to think about going forward.”
“It’s about continuous improvement,” Tymesen echoed in agreement. “We just need to continually review our processes to make sure we’re serving Coeur d’Alene’s best interests.”