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Art for the win

The Clark County Commission unanimously approved a program Tuesday that will earmark up to $1.5 million annually for a county arts fund.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani modeled the program on Las Vegas's Percent for the Arts program, which designates a small amount of construction funding for art projects. Other municipalities, including Reno and Henderson, have similar programs.

But Clark County, the largest local government in the state, had no dedicated arts fund. In fact, last year the county spent a scant $19,000 on public art, Giunchigliani said. That money paid for projects like ZAP, where local artists paint utility boxes. The county funds some performing and youth art programs through Parks & Recreation.

Community members who testified at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the arts fund, although some of them advocated for the inclusion of performing arts. The fund, as envisioned, would fund visual arts in public places, including video, electronic and digital art. Opera, theater and music are not included in the ordinance.

The commissioners said they did this for the children. As if to prove the point, they invited members of a high school business program to express their opinions about the arts. That led to one of the most digressive public hearings in recent memory, with supporters praising everything from DJ culture to professional wrestling.

After almost an hour of discussion, the debate moved to the dais. While most of the commissioners openly supported the plan, several of them wondered where the money for public art would be coming from.

"I see what the city is doing, but the county is a different animal," said Commissioner Larry Brown. "We have the courts, family services, UMC -- we spend millions on social services. We're really going to have to look at the effect of where this money is coming from."

Brown's statement echoed his colleagues' concerns. Art is great, sure, but at what expense? A kidney dialysis program at UMC? A couple social workers at Child Protective Services? A few police cruisers on the Strip every weekend?

Giunchigliani promised the arts fund would not raid essential services. As written, the fund will draw from capital improvement and room tax monies. As a pilot program, the county may take a portion of settlement money to seed the program. After they create a workable system for choosing and commissioning public art, then they'll find a more sustainable funding source.

Through its Percent for the Arts program, the city of Las Vegas has commissioned several large public art pieces -- most notably, the Oppenheim paintbrushes on Charleston Boulevard. Public reaction to the paintbrushes has been mixed, at best, and the sculptures came in late and over-budget. The city's other art projects include the Southern Nevada Police Memorial, the Cultural Corridor bridge and medallion project and the Atomic Passage streetscapes on Casino Center Boulevard.

The county arts fund will go live in January. The county commission will create an advisory board and a detailed plan to steer the fund. No money will be released until a plan has been written and approved. Many of the kinks will be worked out in the fall and spring, as this thing gets off the ground. The most important thing, Giunchigliani said, is to get a policy in place, so the county gets a little skin in the cultural game.

"The most important thing is the policy of getting this going," she said. "This ordinance is a first step. We are a wonderful community, but we could just be so much better."