Everybody's a Critic (Nobody's an Accountant)

Miami Beach's volunteer Art in Public Places committee will not be convening this week. The reason for cancellation of the scheduled meeting is simple to explain but difficult to understand.

Simple part: The committee, a panel of experts charged by the Beach's city commission with overseeing a program to purchase and install artwork in public places, can do its job only if there is money to spend. Because there is no money to spend, the committee cannot do its job. And if it can't do its job, why meet?

Difficult part: How could there be no money available for a program that by law should have a bank balance of at least $115,000? Even more difficult: Could the Art in Public Places program actually owe the city $220,000?

Created in 1984, the Miami Beach Art in Public Places program is funded by means of a city ordinance that requires at least 1.5 percent of the construction budget for any new public building to be set aside for the purchase of art. The ordinance was updated in 1995 to allow the money from one construction site to be used for public art someplace else in the city.

The most recent new building was the massive parking garage on Collins Avenue and Seventh Street, construction of which should have funneled $115,000 into the art program's coffers, according to the city's finance director. But owing to a monumental snafu, that didn't happen. (City officials simply forgot they were required to set aside the money for art.) After a collective slap on the forehead, commissioners rectified the oversight last October and ordered City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa to properly allocate the money.

By April, however, Garcia-Pedrosa still had not appropriated the funds, which provoked Commissioner Neisen Kasdin to prod the city manager. The next month Kasdin received assurances that the money was in place. And so when the committee members met in June, they believed they were about to get on with the business of commissioning art projects. Instead they got a disturbing report from the city administration.

Garcia-Pedrosa had asked his finance director, Trish Walker, to prepare the report, which bore an appropriately bureaucratic title: "City of Miami Beach Art in Public Places Schedule of Requirements, Expenditures, Commitments, and Proposed Projects." Beneath the jargon was a radical new interpretation of the city ordinance governing Art in Public Places. As propounded by Garcia-Pedrosa, this view effectively stripped the committee of all responsibility for recommending artists, projects, and sites. More specifically, the report attempted to provide justification for the city manager's billing the Art in Public Places program for all city art projects, even if the committee had nothing to do with them.

As for the anticipated infusion of cash from the municipal parking garage, it was nowhere to be found. The manager's explanation: The money had not been included in the city's 1997-1998 budget. Simply put, if it wasn't budgeted, it couldn't be spent.

According to Walker's report, Art in Public Places should be billed for a wide variety of things: the decorations on the city's new electric buses, a number of Lincoln Road amenities from drinking fountains to a specially designed information booth, and five new lifeguard stands -- none of which were

commissioned by the committee. The one project committee members had actually considered they voted down: permanent installation of A Celebration of Light, the $27,000 display of neon rings decorating palm trees at the eastern end of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Still, the finance director's report recommended that Art in Public Places should reimburse the city for everything on the list -- if and when it ever got any money in its bank account.

"From the report it looks as though not only does the city not have Art in Public Places's money, but we owe them money," fumed committee co-chairwoman Paula Harper, a University of Miami professor of art history.

Harper wasn't the only person who reacted negatively to Garcia-Pedrosa's gambit. Commissioner Kasdin put it bluntly: "The financial report is contrary to the ordinance. This stuff cannot be charged to the Art in Public Places fund."

Commissioner Nancy Liebman was alarmed enough by the document that she sent a memo to the city manager asking for clarification. Garcia-Pedrosa responded by backpedaling. The report, he explained, was intended to show how much the administration supported public art. It was his hope, he added, the Art in Public Places committee would acknowledge that support by contributing its own funds to projects undertaken without its input. "That would be a nice result," he said, "[but] it is up to the committee to give consideration to it."

Liebman seemed satisfied but still worried about finding the $115,000 that should have been generated by construction of the parking garage. "If this city indeed values the Art in Public Places ordinance and committee and the direction that the city is taking in terms of art, we should begin identifying that money and allow it to move forward," she said. "We are at a standstill."

An exasperated Paula Harper concurred in that assessment. "We haven't done anything except take a few steps forward and a few steps back, and go around in a circle in the same dance that we've been dancing for the past few years," she said. "It's like being in a Marx Brothers movie."

"We haven't done anything except take a few steps forward and a few steps back. It's like being in a Marx Brothers movie.


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