The Bull City is finally taking the public art plunge. The Durham City Council passed a resolution Monday night to devote up to 1 percent of the proposed General Capital Improvement Project (CIP) annual budget to the installation of public art at CIP sites and other locations around the city, including a priority area downtown and along “gateways” to the city. It’s been a long time coming.

The percent-for-art program was flagged as a high-priority section of Durham’s Cultural Master Plan (CMP) as early as 2004. Once the city created a board to oversee moving forward with the plan, the program took second-tier status. The board designated a task force to create a temporary public art policy for the city to use in the meantime, and a consultant developed a plan after examining what other community percent-for-art programs looked like. Things were moving right along toward City Council consideration when the economy tanked.

Josh Parker, of the Cultural Advisory Board as well as the TBL Group, a diversified community development and invest firm, explains the history.

“In talking with the CMP board and the public art task force and internally with the city, we just felt like trying to bring forward a program that looked like it was asking to spend moneywhen in fact it wasn’t necessarily doing thatbut even had the appearance of that was probably not a good idea when we were dealing with massive budget shortfalls. So we sort of put it on ice for about 18 months.”

While on ice, the resolution was further vetted and crafted. Which was time well spent, according to Parker.

“We’re ending up with a pretty strong document that we know we can execute on. And that’s why I think it’s felt like it’s moving a bit slow through the city, but there has been this piece-by-piece progress, just to have assurances that the policy makes its way to the council agenda.”

Kim Rorschach, director of the Nasher Museum of Art, has served on the task force. She’s thrilled the resolution is now in place.

“The policy sends a message very broadly that art is valued in this community,” Rorschach says. “Whether someone is going to Full Frame, or to something at Duke, or to DPAC [the Durham Performing Arts Center], we care about the experience that they have, and we want to welcome them in terms of visiting the city and its atmosphere and ambiance. And I think public art has a role to play in that.

“We’re trying to think about public art as broadly as possible. It might be a sculpture on a plaza, or outdoor mural paintings. Just as an example, we saw a preliminary project proposal in which sewer grates all around the city could be painted according to a certain theme by a certain group of artists. And then there could be a map to find the sites.”

After waiting patiently for years, the Cultural Advisory Board will waste no time, meeting the morning after the vote to talk about next steps. The first is to determine the scope and selection process for a Public Art Committee that would be the first body to see public art project proposals.

The approval process, however, is fairly set. The Public Art Committee would flag proposals to pass along to the Cultural Advisory Board, and an internal city process would weigh in as well. In addition to considering any project’s educational possibilities, the Cultural Advisory Board would seek public input, particularly from neighborhoods and businesses close to a proposed site. The final decision on a proposal would rest with the City Council, which would vote on it at a public meeting.

Small-scale or temporary projects, or maintenance of existing public art, could be fast-tracked, however. “It could be that if it’s under a certain amount and there’s not public money and it’s just the lease of some space, the city manager might be authorized to make those decisions on his own. But any meaningful public art is definitely something that the council would have the final say on,” Parker explains.

Locations for temporary art exhibitions specified in the resolution include CCB Plaza, Central Park, Five Points, the Civic Center Plaza, the grounds of the Durham Performing Arts Center, City Hall, the Hayti Heritage Center, the Durham Arts Council, the Carolina Theatre and Durham Athletic Park.

The CIP, which runs the fiscal decade 2012–21, covers everything from large-scale projects like the Human Services Complex and the new county courthouse to public schools, refurbishments to the Museum of Life and Science and IT infrastructure. After hovering in the mid-$30 million range for several years, the CIP line in the 2011–12 budget is $46,962,324.

The percent-for-art program won’t kick in until fiscal year 2012–13, but that doesn’t necessarily mean citizens should anticipate $470,000 for public art. The “up to” in “up to 1 percent” gives the council leeway in determining the annual allocation.

“The percentage really just asks the manager not so much to consider a number each year relative to the CIP but to make sure that public art has a budgeted number,” Parker notes. “It’s to make it a part of the budgeting process. And I think that’s really where it provides transparency to citizens. It’s not arbitrarily tied to some budget line item. It’s something that citizens can really advocate for to be funded.”

This story was originally published in shorter form on Artery, the Indy‘s arts blog.