Painters and sculptors . . . Architecture has indeed need of your attention .
-Le Corbusier, "Toward a New Architecture"
Art has long been a part of public buildings - from the caryatids at the Acropolis to the statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol. But modern architecture, with its emphasis on simplicity of form and finish, has seemed less and less to invite the organic inclusion of art. And, as art has become more and more an afterthought, it has become conspicuous by its absence.
Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) would change all that Spellman, recently relected to a third term, is working on legislation that would ensure the inclusion of art in public buildings by ratifying the General Services Administration's existing Art in Architecture program.
Under the auspices of that program, GSA has commissioned more than 105 works for new buildings since 1972, by setting aside up to half of one percent of the construction cost to pay artists. The program is optional, however, and even when implemented has been plagued and diluted by political and administrative problems.
The problems culminated in 1975 when controversy erupted over a proposed sculpture by George Sugarman for the new Baltimore Federal Court house. The sculpture aroused the "unanimous" opposition of the building's tenants, federal judges led by Chief District Court Judge Edward S. Northrop, touching off a year-long struggle that pitted Sugarman, with Arists Equity Association, against the determined judges and a vacillating, somewhat embarrassed GSA. The Sugarman sculpture was eventually installed, but at a high price to artists, since then-GSA Administrator Arthur F. Sampson cut the level of funding for future commissions from half of one percent to three-eighths of one percent of a building's construction cost.
Jay Solomon, GSA's current administrator, has restored the half-of-one-percent standard at the urging of Joan Mondale. Still, the Sugarman controvery taught artists conclusively the limitations of a program that exists - as a political and aesthetic orphan - only at the whim of GSA's top official. Solomon is known to be sympathetic to artists' needs and an enthusiastic supporter of Art in Architecture, but the next administrator might not be.
Spellman's measure would not only guarantee the commissioning of art for future GSA construction - and in these inflationary times artists are in the classic position of last hired, first fired; it would specify a higher level of spending as well: up to one percent of construction cost. The bill also recognizes the imperatives of the design and construction process by mandating selection of the artist "as soon as practicable." In the past, a lack of clear timetables or formal policy governing coordination between artists and architects has led to embarrassing cost overruns, compromises and lastminute omissions of planned artwork. You can't put a 70-foot mural in a 50-foot lobby.
In Europe, financing art directly from construction budgets is an old idea. France has a national one-percent-for-art policy, and the city of Amsterdam has allocated 2 percent of public construction money since 1949.
Philadelphia, whose city hall boasts four bronze eagles by sculptor Alexander Calder's grandfather, passed the first such statute in this country in 1959. Since then, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and eight states have passed similar measures. Art historian Bnnard Periman notes that Philadelphia alone has spent more for art in public buildings than GSA has. The National Council of State Legislatures, studying state support for the arts under a National Endowment grant, estimates that $25 million would be spent for art annually if every state established a percent-for-art program.
And since GSA actually accounts for no more than 6 percent of federal construction, according to David Caney, director of legislative liaison for the American Institute of Architects, a percent-for-art bill aimed only at GSA can hardly be considered a raid on the public treasury. At least 36 other government agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Veterans Administration, also build; Spellman's measure deliberately excludes them. It was an unfounded worry over requiring one percent for "art" for every new bridge, sewer and repaved road that led to a mayoral veto, quickly overridden by the city council, of Baltimore's ordinance in 1964.
Spellman's percent-for-art bill did not emerge from the House Public Works Committee this year. However, it will resurface early in the next session. Spellman cites the promise of Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.) to give the matter top priority in his Public Buildings and Grounds subcommittee. The measure has the support of GSA Administrator Solomon, Mrs. Mondale, Artist's Equity and AIA.
In contrast with the rather elite image that attaches to some arts legislation, Spellman has written into her bill a certain grass-roots appeal. The measure emphasizes that primary consideration for each project be given to local artists, which appeals to artists as a remedy for the "big name artist" syndrome that has characterized many past GSA commissions. And the stipulation should also appeal to Spellman's colleagues, since choosing local artists would mean that more federal money would go to home districts. CAPTION: Illustration, Detail from George Sugarman's "People."