North Adams mayor says final say on public art should be his, not commission's

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NORTH ADAMS — The final say on public art installations should come from the mayor's office, not the Public Arts Commission, according to Mayor Thomas Bernard.

The mayor is proposing a series of changes to the commission's charter that would weaken the seven-member board and make it an advisory commission to the mayor on proposals for art installations on public property.

The proposal will be met with opposition from commission Chairwoman Julia Dixon, who described it as "consolidation of power."

The revisions be will reviewed Tuesday by the City Council. Bernard expects the matter will be referred to committee for further public review.

Over the past decades, murals and other projects — some on public property — have proliferated throughout the city, and have at times led to controversy, including a recent debate over who has claim to columns beneath Veterans Memorial Bridge.

The original ordinance, which was passed by the City Council in the wake of the group's formation in 2015, erred in giving the commission the authority to vote on public art proposals, Bernard said, and instead should have left that power to the mayor as the city's "contracting authority."

"It did limit the authority of the mayor in a way that is hard to justify," Bernard said.

Dixon disagrees.

She said the seven-member committee is democratic, reflects the city and its residents, and serves as a bridge between the community and City Hall.

"We're a group of seven people that have specific areas of expertise in this realm, and we're charged with making some decisions about this thing that we have expertise on," she said. "The mayor has changed it, it feels like, to centralize power to his own office."

The commission recently produced a template contract for artists who wish to install art on public property — and Bernard believes he would have to sign off any such deal to make it official.

"Over the spring, one of the things [the commission] did was work with the city to develop an artist agreement," he said. "Now that there's an artist agreement in place, [the proposal] is really clarifying rules and responsibilities."

The artist contract is between the city and commissioning organization or arts and includes terms that cover issues like liability, term of the installation, copyright and more. It has yet to be implemented, but three proposals are currently pending.

The commission was formed under the administration of former Mayor Richard Alcombright, with the ordinances written by a working group of 10 community members and passed by the City Council.

Previously, public art had been approved through a handshake deal between artist and mayor.

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"Mayor Alcombright really wanted the community to be involved in this," Dixon said. "Now, this mayor unilaterally made a decision to change basically our constitution."

Acquisition, installation and removal of public artworks on public property was to be decided by the commission. Under Bernard's proposal, the mayor would have authority in each of those realms.

But Bernard said every mayor decides how he or she wants to approach an issue and "what level of responsibility they want to exercise."

"In the area of public art, now that there is an agreement and it's something that will come before me to sign, I would very much like to have it very clear that I am the signing authority for anything that obligates the city," Bernard said.

Dixon believes Bernard's revisions would defeat the purpose of the commission's existence.

"I feel like it's a waste of my time, a waste of my skills, and a waste of my opinions if he's just going to unilaterally make a decision," Dixon said.

Bernard said his proposal comes now as a direct result of the commission crafting the template agreement.

"Previously there was no agreement. When that piece of the ordinance was written, the mechanism for approval was different," he said. "Now that there is an agreement I think it is important to make clear who has authority to approve."

Under the section titled "powers and duties," Bernard would edit the text to explicitly state the need for the mayor's approval before public art is installed, acquired, or removed.

Bernard likens the Public Arts Commission to the human services commission, which serves as a grant review panel for the social services portion of the city's Community Develop Block Grant funding.

"They review the grants and make a recommendation," Bernard said.

The ordinance "used to give the commission broad discretion," said Bernard, who emphasized that the mayor is the contracting authority for public art.

The new ordinance would also make clear that the maximum length of any art installation agreement would be five years, unless extended under a written agreement by both parties.

Bernard did not consult the commission before submitting the proposal, but said he maintains confidence in its membership.

"I'm not seeking a veto power," he said. "I'm seeking the ability to assert what my executive right is in these matters."

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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