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Senators Critique “Ridiculous” Artworks, Vote to Eliminate Art in State Buildings

Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
"Floating World" by artist Ralph Helmick, at the Biorenewables Complex at Iowa State University

A Republican proposal to get rid of Iowa’s Art in State Buildings program sparked a contentious debate in the Iowa Senate Thursday.  

The program sets aside a small percentage of the cost of state building projects to commission onsite paintings and sculpture.  

GOP lawmakers say they’ve heard a lot of criticism about the artworks on campuses, at rest stops, and around the capitol complex.  

Since the program began in 1979, art work has been included in some 160 state buildings

Sen. Charles Schneider (R-West Des Moines) approves of beautiful art at the magnificent Iowa statehouse.

Beautiful sculpture in the front yard of a hog barn? -Sen. Tim Kapucian

“Or the Supreme Court building, yes there should be public art, we ought to provide that for our citizens,” Schneider.  “But a rest stop?

"I'm not sure that rises to the same level,” Schneider added. “I know it doesn’t for a lot of constituents because they tell me that.” 

Backers of the program are arguing to preserve it.   But once Sen. Schneider opened the door for art criticism, several senators described what they called wasteful examples. 

For Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale), that includes a sculpture at the rest stop on I-80 between Adair and Casey recognizing the importance of Iowa’s wind energy industry.

“I drive by when I'm on my way to Omaha and I drive by that ridiculous… I don't know what it is... a wind turbine sticking out of the ground,” Zaun said.  “To me that’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

"The rest stop art shows visitors that Iowa is a cool place to live," said Sen. Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo).    

Campus art also came in for some ridicule, including an installation at the Dairy Barn at Iowa State.

“They’re required to put art in that barn,” said Sen. Dan Zumbach (R-Ryan).   “They put some beautiful stuff in there.

“It looked really good the first few years” Zumbach said.  “Now it's covered with fly poop.”

Painting and sculpture at the ISU Swine Nutrition Research Farm also seemed out of place to Sen. Tim Kapuchian (R-Keystone.)

“Beautiful sculpture in the front yard of a hog barn,” Kapuchian said.  “Beautiful paintings on the wall of a hog farm. 

“I  tell you what,  a  bunch of hog farmers weren’t appreciative of that,” Kapuchian said.  “I see the need in certain areas, but a pig farm?”  

There's the small matter of public pride. -Sen. Herman Quirmbach

Sen. David  Johnson (I- Ocheyedan) offered an amendment to save the program. 

He asked how much it has cost over the years.  

“I can tell you now we have about $100 million worth of construction projects at our Regents institutions alone,” Schneider said.  “The amount we have had to withhold is $500,000.”

“$500,000?” Johnson asked.   “Is that all?” 

“You're missing the point, Senator,” Schneider replied.

“I’m not missing the point,” Johnson said.

Credit Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
Mosaic at Honey Creek resort, artist Brad Kaspari

“You are missing the point,” Schneider repeated.  “I love public art in the appropriate place but these are tough times and taxpayers expect us to be more judicious.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames) also argued the cost is relatively low, just one-half of one percent of the state investment in a building.

“Then there’s the small matter of public pride,” Quirmbach said.  “Why shouldn't the people of Iowa be proud of their public buildings?”

On a party-line vote the GOP-controlled Senate approved the bill that included the cut to art in state buildings.     

But senators didn’t get a chance to go on record with a vote for or against the program itself.    

“I’m going to withdraw this amendment because I know it's going to be a postcard,” Johnson said. 

Johnson’s imagining the next election.  

He sees a postcard going out depicting public art, poking fun at it, and urging the defeat of anyone who supports it.  

“I know it,” Johnson said.

Editor's note:  A quote in this story made by Sen. Bill Dotzler was incorrectly attributed to Sen. Todd Bowman in an earlier version.