The Investigators

Apr 23, 2014 12:25 PM by Tom McNamara and Paul Birmingham

N4T Investigators: Uncovering the cause of crumbling public art

You can easily spot pricey public art all around Tucson. Some of it, you may like. While, other displays, you might not like so much.

Nevertheless, that art costs you as a taxpayer many thousands of dollars for design and installation.

But have you noticed that in many places, Tucson's public art seems to be crumbling?

Earlier this year, the News 4 Tucson Investigators uncovered how much of your money was going to fund public art along Tucson's Modern Streetcar route. The total is more than three-quarters of a million dollars.

But, what about art that your tax dollars have already paid for? We're talking millions of dollars worth. In some cases, that has been left to deteriorate.

From the rattlesnake bridge spanning East Broadway, to the once flowing fountains near the Tucson Convention Center, and El Presidio Park right outside City Hall. Tucson's public art is beginning to show its age, and the warranty expired long ago.

"Initially, once a piece of art is put in, there is a warranty for the first two years of its life, the artist is responsible for fixing it, in most cases," says Mary Ellen Wooten, with the Tucson Pima Arts Council.

Wooten adds, as with anything, the issue with the aging art is a question of money, or more precisely, a lack of it.

"Really, maintenance money for artwork is part of the general expense of the city. And, artwork is made out of materials just like anything else that might need future maintenance," Wooten says.

For example, the area just outside the TCC Music Hall was put in place in the early 1970's. The fountains were designed by Garrett Eckbo, who is considered to be a master landscape architect.

Today, those fountains are as dry and cracked as the desert surrounding Tucson. Bringing the fountains back will come at a huge cost.

"That's a piece of work that we've identified as something we really want see remain, and, it's going to require significant effort. It can be a significant economic stimulus to downtown, so we'd love to see that work maintained," Wooten says.

But, the city says that feat could cost several hundred thousand dollars to accomplish.

The city earmarks one-percent of the cost of capital improvement projects to include public art, but not a dime of that money can be used for maintenance and upkeep.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators went straight to the top, and Tucson mayor Jonathon Rothschild, to find out why the city isn't doing more to keep up with maintenance.

"What we just have to do is work real hard to find those resources. You know, we look a lot now at public-private partnerships, and finding those private partners that are willing to help out because they believe in the project," Rothschild says.

Meanwhile, Tucson City Council member Steve Kozachik tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, he would like to see a plan for paying for public art upkeep at the time the work is commissioned.

"I think inasmuch as we have a dedicated funding source to create the art, I think taking five or ten percent of that and setting it aside for long-term maintenance on it would be something that we need to have that conversation about," Kozachik says.

Just last month, Pima County decided to set-aside money to maintain public art. Right now, it is unclear when, or if, the City of Tucson will follow suit.

We'll keep you updated.

If you have something you would like the News 4 Tucson Investigators to check out, email us, at, or call the News 4 Tucson Investigators tip-line at 955-4444.


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