Village of Pelham’s plan for art council fails to grant what art needs: independence

The+Pelham+village+board+deferred+putting+the+installation+%22The+Pelham+Laundry%22+up+in+a+park%2C+instead+moved+to+create+an+official+art+council.

The Pelham village board deferred putting the installation “The Pelham Laundry” up in a park, instead moved to create an official art council.

Art and politics have always had a strong relationship. Political art has existed for as long as both art and politics have, and particularly in times of calls for social justice, this political art is of supreme importance.

Stemming from a discussion about this sort of art, and a discussion of “The Pelham Laundry” exhibit at the Pelham Art Center, Village Mayor Chance Mullen and the Village of Pelham Board of Trustees proposed a municipal art council to independently handle art on public property. And while the idea of an independent municipal art council is certainly a good idea, the specifics of the proposal from the board fail to create a truly independent council.

Let’s realize first the inappropriate influence that members of the village board will have over the members of their proposed art council. This untoward impact of the board doesn’t come from their decisions on who to appoint. Rather, it comes in their ability to remove members from the council. Surely, very few would object to a removal of a member with cause. But this proposed law goes even farther than that.

Instead, the proposed law states that members can be removed by a simple majority of the board, “with or without cause.”

This clause, just four words in a seven page law, immediately undermines the independence of this proposed council. The earlier sections of the law go through great pains to create a veneer of independence beyond the appointment of the members, from requiring experience in the arts to ensure professional politicians don’t sit on the panel, to allowing the chair and vice chair to be selected by the members themselves. 

Allowing the members of the board to remove members of the council without cause is simply going to create opportunity after opportunity for impropriety. Passing this law, with this clause in it, puts the option on the table for the board to remove people who they see as being on the wrong side of a controversial issue. If members of the art council have to worry about being replaced with no real reason other than that they simply voted against the wishes of the board, then we can never trust the council to actually do its job.

Next let’s realize how the village board goes even further in undermining the independence of their proposed council. 

The Village of Pelham retains the right to relocate and remove any artwork approved by the council for a litany of reasons, including safety, damage to the artwork, or “any other grounds consistent with the Village’s authority.”

To be sure, I wouldn’t deign to argue that dangerous or damaged art shouldn’t be removed. But there is no reason why this removal shouldn’t be a prerogative of the art council itself. This provision, which enables the board to overturn essentially any decision made by the council serves only to further undercut the authority of the art council that they propose.

The idea of an independent, apolitical art council governing public art is not a bad one. But under this legislation, any art council formed would be toothless and impotent, forced to be fearful of the potential ramifications of any controversial decisions, and knowing that literally any decision that they may make could be overturned without effort by the village board. 

Political art is good. But having politicians govern our art is not.