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City boosts funding for public art, local artists

Patricia Pratt, Eddie Rodriguez, and an unidentified activist wait for the City Council meeting to begin on Monday night. Pratt and friends have been advocating for more public and community art since 2013.
Patricia Pratt, Eddie Rodriguez, and an unidentified activist wait for the City Council meeting to begin on Monday night. Pratt and friends have been advocating for more public and community art since 2013.

Merced leaders have agreed to allocate more of the city’s budget dollars to public art projects after sending out a request for proposals and receiving an enthusiastic response from local artists.

The decision also came after an extended, somewhat controversial review process, and some of the artists called for the city to “defund” its graffiti abatement program and instead use those dollars to expand support for public art.

The Merced City Council on Monday night voted to allocate $100,000 in the upcoming fiscal year to support those projects created by artists living in or near the city. Also, as part of the funding, council members went ahead and approved five proposals, valued at more than $48,000, that were already recommended by the city’s Arts & Culture Advisory Commission (ACAC).

After sending out an “Open Call For Artists” in December, the ACAC selected a subcommittee to review 14 submitted projects. A ranking system was used to grade each of the proposals with consideration to artistic vision and merit, cost, location, statement of interest, appropriateness, and community impact. The ACAC’s final recommendations presented at Monday’s meeting included a total of six proposals — five submitted by local artists and one in Fresno County.

  • Artist Eddie Rodriguez scored the highest with his plan for a mural on the McNamara Park Youth Center Building with a projected budget of $4,600.
  • Artist Glen Camarda was selected for his proposal to create a wheat paste mural on a walkway in Downtown Merced with a budget of $5,990.
  • Artist Joel Aguilar was selected for his mural design for the side building at Applegate Zoo with a proposed budget of $8,000.
  • Patricia Pratt was selected for her mural plan in and around Applegate Skate Park with a budget of $29,000.
  • Karen McComb was selected for her utility box beautification proposal with a budget of $750.
  • Andrea Torres was selected for her dumpster beautification project in city parking areas and behind the Merced Theater with a budget of $5,000.

Torres, who lives in Fresno, was the only recommended artist living outside of Merced County. Her project ended up being denied. As the council debated increasing funding for public art projects and including more submitted plans, Councilman Jesse Ornelas suggested the council approve only the proposals of local artists.

“If adding more money to it than what’s proposed is a problem,” Ornelas said, “Then maybe we should focus on the ones that are from the City of Merced.”

Councilwoman Sarah Boyle chimed in and stated she would approve all 14 proposals that were originally submitted. “If people took the time and want to provide art to the city … I am fine with approving all of them and finding funds one way or another.”

“I’d like to see us give direction to have a total budget of $100,000,” Mayor Matt Serratto emphasized. He added that he wanted to approve all six projects approved by the ACAC, and request the ACAC to make more recommendations with that remaining balance.

Finally a motion was made by Councilman Fernando Echeveria to direct staff to allocate $100,000 to public community art and award the proposals made by the five recommended local artists within the “sphere of influence of Merced.” The motion passed six to one, with Mayor Serratto noting he would have preferred approving all of the proposals the ACAC had recommended.

Outside of the chamber doors, local artists and advocates were excited to hear $100,000 would be allocated to public community art.

“It’s a great precedent,” artist Eddie Rodriguez said. “Eventually we will have other outside artists, but if we start to prioritize our funding here, I think that will make our community grow here.”

Artist Patricia Pratt added, “I am happy that they are investing. It is groundbreaking and monumental for Merced. I am happy that they will be reviewing the rest of the proposals and making more recommendations to council.”


Scoring controversy

The council’s decisions on Monday night, however, came after artist Patricia Pratt advocated for proposals to be revised by the ACAC, as she felt the commission had failed to grade the submitted work accurately according to the evaluation criteria the City of Merced set forth in the ‘Open Call for Artists’ they released back in early December 2021.

Pratt is a local artist and the owner of Kreepy Kawaii Designs in Downtown Merced. She had been advocating for public artwork at City Council meetings since 2013.

On Jan. 3 and Jan. 21, Pratt said she requested clarity on the submission of the proposals from the ACAC that she said was later contradicted by the ACAC when the grading was made. “How are people to know even what to do?” she asked.

At the City Council meeting on April 18, Pratt told leaders: “I have completed 40 murals in Merced at no cost to the city. Twenty four of them are completely visible to public and of those 24, 16 were paid for out of my own pocket. The current Merced public art inventory only has 21 pieces which means I contributed over half of them. … I am wondering why I scored so low when I submitted my proposal, and I am confused. I am wondering if the scoring was reflected of the evaluation criteria listed in the RFP”

A miscalculated score was detected by city staff as they prepared a report to the City Council about the ACAC subcommittee’s art project rankings (initially approved in early April). On April 21, the subcommittee reconvened to review the corrected rankings and recommended adding a sixth project for the ACAC’s consideration. On April 25, the Arts and Culture Advisory Commission held a special meeting to review the corrected rankings. Unfortunately, there was no quorum for this meeting.

Said Pratt, “I appreciate the work that they did and I recognize that they are volunteers …

“It’s really not fair to a commission member to require that they do things so quickly without being able to consider the grading criteria and how they are choosing projects. The grading criteria was also not consistent with what was identified in the RFP which is disappointing. There needs to be transparency with the scoring system and it is unfair to change the criteria after the the proposals have been submitted.”

Regarding Pratt, Councilman Echeveria commented: “She put in a lot of her own money to make a lot of these murals progressively happen throughout the city of Merced. I would probably give her the highest priority in this. She already put out a lot out of her own money to help beautify this town.”

Local oil painter, Eddie Rodriguez also encouraged council members to go back and review all submitted proposals that were submitted.

“There were certain proposals that were not even reviewed,” he said, adding that individual artists were encouraged to submit multiple proposals. “They chose only one per artists. There were several proposals where people did the ground work to make these proposals, but they were never seen.”


A new ‘defund’ demand

Pratt also expressed her frustration with the city’s graffiti abatement program.

“The city has contracted Environment Compliance Services since 2014 starting at $178,000 per year with an increase each year since then. The amount is now at $203,000 which is over $16,000 on a monthly basis. Since 2014, the funding has been close to 2 million dollars while the last budgeted art project in Merced was in 2011, over ten years ago. We need to reallocate that money to public art.”

Environmental Compliance Resources, owned by Atwater Mayor Paul Creighton, has a contract with the city that is set to expire in 2023, and in its fifth year, is being compensated at a monthly rate of $16,959.75.

At Monday night’s meeting, community members also voiced their opinions on the city’s contract with the graffiti program.

“I would like the bring up the graffiti abatement program,” local artist Goku McAfee said through his voicemail. “It receives $200,000 a year and $16,000 monthly. I think that those funds need to be reallocated to artists. Think about that — $16,000 going to artists and the art that could be made and done.”

Although it was not on the agenda, Councilman Echeveria and Councilwoman Bertha Perez also contributed a few words about the abatement contract with the city and whether or not allocating more money to murals and public art would keep areas of the city free from graffiti.

“We’re trying to find funding, we’re trying to find money,” Echeveria said in reference to more community artwork. “If we have a problem that is continuous with graffiti, and we use the abatement contract to take care of it, and then a week later it’s back, why don’t we invest the money with an artist, put a mural, and see how that goes. We might get more bang for the buck.”

Councilwoman Bertha Perez echoed Echeverias statements adding that a mural in the place of an empty wall could possibly keep the graffiti off, and thus lower the need for graffiti abatement.

The City Council is expected to continue budget talks leading up to the City Manager’s proposed budget in the weeks ahead and final budget approval in late June.

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