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A2 Arts Alliance Exec. Director: “We Advised the Mayor NOT to Put An Art Tax on the Ballot”

by P.D. Lesko

In July 2012 Deb Polich (pronounced Polick) was named the new executive director of the Ann Arbor Arts Alliance.

In August, says Polich, “We—the Arts Alliance Board and myself—had a meeting with Mayor Hieftje and Council members Taylor (Christopher Taylor, Ward 3) and Lumm (Jane Lumm, Ward 2), and we told them that a ballot proposal to fund the Percent for Art program with a millage was not a good idea. We just didn’t have enough time, or enough data to put together a good campaign.”

Despite her professional misgivings, Polich became co-chair of the ballot committee that urged Ann Arbor taxpayers to “B For Art.” Polich is the wife of Downtown Development Authority Board member (and Michigan Theater Executive Director) Russ Collins. Critics of the Percent for Art funding mechanism, including City Council members Marcia HigginsStephen Kunselman, Sally Hart Petersen, Sumi Kailasapathy and Jane Lumm have repeatedly alleged that the program is illegally skimming money from utilities and capital projects, including the city’s road repair fund.

In 2007, Hieftje was the lone sponsor of ordinance that funded pubic art projects, in large part, by skimming 1 percent from capital projects, including water, sewer and road projects. He modeled his ordinance after the one in place in Seattle—an ordinance that had been found to be illegally using money from utility projects for art. Two years before Hieftje sponsored his Percent for Art resolution, Seattle residents had sued their own city, and officials were forced to return millions to the utility funds. In their lawsuit against the Seattle Percent for Art program, plaintiffs led by Rud Okeson argued that city officials used City Light (a city utility) as a “cash cow” and charged it for a variety of expenses that were illegitimate, including some art projects.

After the August 6, 2012 primary election which saw Kailasapathy and Sally Hart Petersen replace long-time Hieftje allies Sandi Smith and Tony Derezinski, Hieftje and his remaining Hive Mind Collective faced the humiliating prospect of having the high-profile Percent for Art ordinance repealed. Lumm, Petersen and Kailasapathy have been vocal in their support of local art, but insistent that funding safety services take priority and that road and sewer funds not be used for art projects.

The ballot question committee CITIZENS FOR ART IN PUBLIC PLACES was formed on August 30, 2012, three weeks after Kailasapthy and Petersen won their respective elections. The address of the group on filing papers is 1100 North Main Street Ste. 106B—the address of the Ann Arbor Arts Alliance. Hieftje, his political allies and supporters, took the question of supporting the use of public dollars for art directly to the Ann Arbor voters. A ballot committee to support a millage proposal to fund art through property tax dollars was formed, Polish co-chaired the committee, and Proposal B was off and running.

Deb Polich’s influence looms large in the local arts community, but her office is modest. There is barely enough room for a desk, a book case and two chairs. Her first floor windows, however, overlook Argo Pond, opposite Argo Park; it’s a room with a view. Polich (pictured right) is a Libra, she says, and the best way to describe how she often sees issues is in 50 shades of gray (not her exact words, but you get the gist). During the course of a discussion about the failure of Proposal B, Polich leans across her desk and says, “The only thing I can say definitively about the Prop B vote is that the proposal was defeated. What that defeat means remains open to interpretation.”

That response is infuriatingly familiar to the no-frills-before-roads proponents who want to see the back of John Hieftje’s Percent for Art program, and money re-allocated to roads and other necessary services. Some suggest that the outcome of the vote was a definitive answer from the voters: no public money for art. Others, like Polich, and newly-elected Ward 2 Council member Sally Hart Petersen, are less sure. Petersen’s Ward 2 Council colleague Jane Lumm, however, immediately put forward a resolution to terminate the Percent for Art program based on the outcome of the vote. At a November meeting of City Council after Proposal B was defeated, Lumm said, “Funds used for public art would be better used for street repair, parks or other city expenses. Art pieces funded through the Percent for Art plan have had less than universal acceptance.”

The head of the Arts Alliance just doesn’t agree with Lumm’s conclusion. However, Polich is an arts advocate with over 25 years of experience in the incredibly hard sell that is arts funding. She is smooth, and as relentlessly on-point about the economic benefits of art as Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is about the evils of Obama. Polich’s hard sell of Proposal B included blurring some clear ethical lines. In October 2012, while co-chair of the CITIZENS FOR ART IN PUBLIC PLACES, she “interviewed” Council member Christopher Taylor, sponsor of the resolution to put Proposal B on the ballot (after Polich counseled him not to do it) and a donor to the ballot committee Polich co-chaired. The interview published by The Ann magazine was a subjective,  one-sided infomercial disguised as local journalism.
Deb Polich has spent most of her time advocating for art as the Executive Director at Artrain, a non-profit arts organization that used train cars to shuttle custom exhibits to communities interested in traveling culture. Artrain, ultimately, fell victim to the economy, and Polich was forced to sell off the organization’s train cars to pay off bank loans and creditors. Polich took financial lemons and made lemonade; Artrain now mounts exhibits in truck beds. While Polich insists Artrain’s finances are “improving,” she also admits that local vendors were sometimes paid much too slowly.

“I’ll admit there were times when small, local vendors had to wait to be paid, but I never left anyone hanging,” says Polich.

It’s not hard to see why Polich had problems paying Artrain’s bills. Between 2008 and 2010, Artrain’s end of year tax returns indicate that the organization finished it fiscal year in deficit. The organization lost more than $1 million dollars in total, and overall revenues plummeted from $950,000 per year to $237,000. In 2008, Artrain owed $1.3 million dollars to two local banks, and a member of the organization’s Board, 78-year-old Lambert Althaver, loaned Artrain $165,000. By 2010, when Polich boarded the Arts Alliance Express, Artrain owned Lambert $182,000, though the organization’s bank loans had been paid down to $337,625 by selling off $1.06 million in investments and other assets. Total debt was still $586,255.

In many ways, by moving to the Arts Alliance in the middle of the battle over the city’s Percent for Art program, Polich went from the frying pan and into the fire.

Despite recommending to Hieftje that City Council back away from putting Proposal B on the November 2012 ballot, Polich and her Board of Directors promptly ignored their own advice. Polich was asked to co-chair the  CITIZENS FOR ART IN PUBLIC PLACES and said yes. She threw the Arts Alliance into the battle, as well. When asked why, she doesn’t exactly answer the question, “We advocate for the arts community.”

The tiny non-profit Arts Alliance (revenues were under $130,000 in 2010) plowed over $7,000 into the  CITIZENS FOR ART IN PUBLIC PLACES. In total, Polich provided 40 percent of the ballot committee’s total cash and in-kind donations from a single source, the nonprofit she runs. This use of donated funds to support the political pet projects of the Hive Mind Collective was duplicated by the Board of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Public Library. The Board of that nonprofit, without a member vote, donated $25,000 to the ballot proposal PAC formed to support the passage of a millage for the construction of a new downtown library. In 2011 the Friends of the Library organization lost money, as well, and the $25,000 donation amounted to a whopping 15 percent of the group’s $169,267 in revenue.

“But art is good for the economy,” says Polich, her voice rising, arms out-stretched, palms upright.

She is incredulous that taxpayers don’t see the obvious. Local critics would say Polich is out-of-touch. Those critics have an ally in Dr. Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University who teaches bioethics. In 2009, Singer published The Life You Can Save, a book about charitable giving and the use of public money to fund non-profits. Singer argues that philanthropy for the arts or cultural activities is “morally dubious.” While Polich points out that one of the Arts Alliance’s major initiatives is Arts Education, Dr. Singer has refuted such arguments thusly: “I can see how that would be a worthwhile thing to do. But I’m not sure how well it compares with saving kids from dying from diarrhea or malaria.”

In the face of Singer’s brutally logical ethical arguments, whether art in Ann Arbor should be funded with public money suddenly becomes a very small, selfish, insular debate. For a laugh to break the tension, watch a 2009 interview with Dr. Singer by Stephen Colbert.

Despite the efforts of Polich and others, the smell of smoke from the spectacular crash and burn of Proposal B still clouds the air around Hieftje. Cornered, and notoriously incapable of admitting his mistakes, Hieftje appointed a committee of Council members to “examine” the Percent for Art program. Political insiders suggest that Polich had no choice but to throw the Arts Alliance, its money, and its good name in front of the speeding train that is the public’s intense dislike of the Percent for Art program—a program which has become the ugly poster child of the public money for public art movement.

A political insider offers one possible explanation: “John Hieftje is incredibly vindictive. Had Polich and the Arts Alliance not played ball, it’s entirely possible when Russ Collins’s appointment on the DDA was up, Hieftje would have tossed Collins off the DDA Board, and out of the shrinking Council Majority’s inner circle. It’s still the place to be for political players. For the moment, at least. That’s changing. Watch how many people on Council talk to Hieftje at breaks versus, say, Jack Eaton, when he’s there.” Eaton ran against Hieftje ally Margie Teall and came within 18 votes of unseating her.

Hieftje and his long-time Council ally Margie Teall sit on the Board of the Michigan Theater, where Collins has been the CEO for three decades.

When asked what, if any, political payback she expects the Arts Alliance to reap from its support of Proposal B, Polich shrugs and provides the perfectly politic answer. “I’m not a politician. I really can’t tell you what other people might be thinking.”

That Polich can’t say “what other people might be thinking,” might be precisely the problem. Christopher Taylor, Hieftje and the many local politicos and Hive Mind supporters who threw their endorsements behind Proposal B, as well as the Percent for Art program, often have no idea what people other than their friends are thinking, or worse yet, don’t care to know.

“I believe the proposal failed because we didn’t have enough time to mount a successful campaign. We needed a year, 18 months…some ballot proposal committees take two years to plan and execute successful campaigns,” says Polich with a sigh. “Washtenaw county residents support art.”

The question remains why, then, the Percent for Art program has succeeded in doing little more than seriously irritating taxpayers and voters who respond to surveys that they love art?

“It’s the whole Hive Mind thing,” says A2Politico reader Dave D. in an email, “people want the roads fixed. Read my lips. Fix. The. Roads. People want police and fire. People want their damn leaves picked up and it’s become obvious that Hieftje and his people don’t care what taxpayers want. Tony D. went down with the Percent for Art ship, as did Rapundalo. Her support for the Percent for Art hit Margie Teall real hard. She came to losing. AnnArbor.com doesn’t have a lock on what’s “news” anymore. People read A2Politico, A2Journal, Detroit papers, Twitter, blogs, national news stories about transit, about Ann Arbor even. A2Politico writes about the “Hive Mind Collective” and it shows up in comments on AnnArbor.com stories about how great local government is doing thanks to Hiefje’s leadership. There’s some serious reality checking going on.”

For better or for worse, the Arts Alliance and Deb Polich represented one side of an argument that, in retrospect, only added fuel to an already raging political fire. Will the Arts Alliance get burned?

Despite having her professional opinions ignored by the pols involved, and despite the fact that Polich believes the Percent for Art Program has a “horrible PR problem,” she and her Board members chose to embraced the ballot proposal, and the Arts Alliance came out in favor of using public money to fund art in Ann Arbor. When asked if embracing the unpopular Percent for Art program was a tactical mistake, in true Libra form Polich gave two answers. At one point in the conversation she repeated her mantra: “We advocate for the arts community. It’s what we do.” At another point in the discussion when asked whether backing the millage proposal flew in the face of public opinion, Polich displayed a bit of bravado. “If my involvement with Proposal B, if my support of the Percent for Art program takes me down…so be it.”

She does worry about her professional reputation.

She is convinced that the public’s intense dislike for the Percent for Art program is the result of “failures” on the part of  politicians, members of the “hard-working and dedicated” Art Commission Board, and even failures linked to the art projects themselves (the $1 million dollar rain garden and fountain in front of City Hall—a sculpture that, one could argue, has elicited more derision than appreciation in the comment sections of local news blogs).

“How do we change the public perception of the Percent for Art program?” Polich asks. “What we need is more positive media coverage.”

That’s easier said than done on the Arts Alliance’s modest annual budget that supports Polich and three staffers. Turning the tide of public opinion in favor of the Percent for Art program “would take a fortune and several years,” says a U of M PR staffer via email. “It would be better to kill it, bring it back and call it something else…anything else. And even then, it would be a tough sell. Bottom line? Public opinion matters. That tiny bronze sculpture that people refer to as a ‘phallus’ in front of that immense City Hall are two concrete reminders that elected officials in Ann Arbor don’t care what people think.” 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=13095

2 Comments for “A2 Arts Alliance Exec. Director: “We Advised the Mayor NOT to Put An Art Tax on the Ballot””

  1. You could not get a better reminder that politicians don’t care what voters want. As politicians in Lansing cram thru another version of the unwanted Emergency Manager fiasco, the “Hive Mind Collective” still insists voters secretly want pols to skim taxes meant for basic city functions and plough them into “art.”

    It seems to me that it would be easy enough (to satisfy both the art lovers and those who feel less amorous about art) to propose art projects, call for entries, then put the best ones up on Kickstarter. There, whomever liked the idea could contribute to it and those who did NOT care for the idea could move on to the next idea. And so on.

    A win-win.

    Have you thought about a line of snarky Hive Mind t-shirts to fund this site? I’d be happy to help.

    • OMG! Hive Mind t-shirts?!? AWESOME!! Hieftje as the Borg Queen. How about Hive Mind coffee mugs? Wouldn’t it be better, though, to just get rid of Hive Mind and elect people who actually listen to the voters? I think we’re headed in that direction. I’m hopeful.

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