Amherst revives public art bylaw for major projects

  • Cambridge artist David Fichter works on the Amherst Hotel portion of his recreation of the Amherst Community History Mural on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, 2019. His original mural, completed in 2005, was lost with the demolition of the former Carriage Shops on East Pleasant Street.

  • Cambridge artist David Fichter, right, and his assistant, Liane Noddin, left, of Somerville work on the re-creation of the Amherst Community History Mural on the back wall of One East Pleasant Street last October. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2020 11:51:08 PM

AMHERST — An avenue for having public art incorporated into major capital projects, such as a new elementary school and a fire station in South Amherst, may soon be possible.

The Finance Committee voted 5-0 Tuesday to recommend that the Town Council adopt a revised Percent for Art bylaw. If enacted, Amherst would join Cambridge in having such a bylaw.

Under the bylaw drafted this month, which “establishes a funding program to ensure that public art is acquired, created and otherwise made available in Amherst,” 0.5% of the capital costs of any eligible town construction project budgeted at a minimum of $1 million would be applied to public art projects.

Support for the bylaw comes after an ad hoc committee was appointed in August to determine how to fix the original bylaw adopted by Town Meeting in spring 2017. That measure, mandating the 0.5 % of the construction costs for new or renovated municipal buildings, would have gone into a public art fund to be used for visual art and performing arts, but failed to get necessary approvals from the state Legislature.

The revised bylaw includes increasing the threshold for when public art needs to be included from $100,000 to $1 million, limiting the type of art to permanent, visual art, rather than any type of performing arts, and giving the Town Council discretion to eliminate or reduce the need for such art by a majority vote.

Public Art Commission Chairman William Kaizen, who served on the ad hoc committee, said the commission is pleased with the revisions, observing that money will come from the town’s general fund and possibly grants.

“The bylaw will allow the town to spend a small amount of money to employ artists to create public artworks as part of a public process for the aesthetic and economic benefit of residents and visitors,” Kaizen said.

He added that the program can be viewed as similar to projects launched under the Works Progress Administration during th Great Depression.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who also participated in writing the new bylaw language, said that the Public Art Commission will hold hearings on any art projects developed through the bylaw and make sure neighbors and building users have a say in what is created through a Percent for Art Advisory Committee.

That committee would also include, according to the bylaw, “a majority of professionals who work in the arts in fields such as production, education, criticism, administration, fundraising.”

It is important for the council to have discretion over whether public art is included in a project, Council President Lynn Griesemer said. That would allow councilors to nix art from the $11 million or so project to build a new Centennial water treatment plant in Pelham, where she said it would make little sense to have taxpayers support art displayed in another community and in a remote area.

Estimates show the inclusion of art will have a minimal impact on the costs of projects. For eligible costs of a project at $10 million or $20 million, the public art would add $2 to $2.50 to the typical residential tax bill per year when borrowing is done over a 20- or 30-year period.

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