In Defense of Guam's "Percent for Art" Law

An article in this Monday’s Pacific Daily News (PDN) reported on the forestalled opening of the fifth floor of Guam Regional Medical City (GRMC) due to the failure of the building’s developers to comply with the state’s Percent for Art law. Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities (CAHA), the agency which oversees the enforcement of this law, was unable to sign off on the building’s occupancy permit due to this noncompliance. The article paints a picture of a much-needed resource being held ransom by evil art administrators. What I see instead is a state appointed agency fulfilling its duty in enforcing the Percent for Art law. While the PDN article provides some history on the new construction project and offers readers a few opinions, little context is given for the rationale behind Percent for Art..


Fort those of you who did not read the article or who are unfamiliar with Percent for Art, the program requires that one percent of the total amount spent on the construction of public buildings, or private buildings that are receiving certain tax benefits for having public areas, and have a budget of over $100,000, either be spent on art or donated to the state agency. On Guam, the state appointed agency is CAHA.


The economic impact of this law extends beyond the artist whose work is selected. In addition to the art itself, the funds cover all aspects of the administration that goes into facilitating the acquisition of artwork, and all installation costs. That means state agency costs are being covered, and all engineers, fabricators, and installers involved in the process are also getting paid. On top of that, money that does go directly towards paying a local artist is eventually going to feed back into the local economy. In the case that CAHA is paid directly, those funds are made available via grants. People can then apply for grants in order to fund a variety of art or cultural projects, including things such as supplies for art programs or educational workshops open to the public. 


The program is often attacked once the public learns about how much money is being spent on the arts. In this case, for example, the $1.5 million sounds like a lot of money—but, it is still only one percent of the entire $150 million cost of construction. Of the other $148.5 million dollars that was spent, how much of the other expenditures were challenged? How can we know that every other aspect of the construction was selected and paid for responsibly? For example, how do we know the best architect was chosen? How much was spent on hardware? Equipment? Cleaning supplies? Electricians? How energy-efficient is the completed 5th floor? Furthermore, how does the $1.5 million contribution to art purchases compare to the tax breaks that were granted?


According to the PDN article, “the law describes local artwork as including sculptures, murals, or paintings.” To clarify, the actual law states:

“All visual art forms will be considered along with objects relating to or consisting of indigenous art.”

I point this out because $1.5 million dollars sounds especially large if one is thinking of art as a framed painting hanging on a wall. Yes, sculptures and paintings can be displayed in public and can and should be included in the types of works purchased by these funds.  Public art, however, is a specific type of art that is conceived of by an artist for a specific context. This is important. The funds are not meant to bankroll a few hobbyists. They are meant to fund projects that stimulate dialogue within the public, enrich the community, and define the experience of the place in which it exists. When the context is a hospital– a place of healing and hope but also of anxiety and loss– a well-considered artwork can have enormous impact on the hospital experience.


The law requires artists be selected soon after the architect’s schematic design is approved so that the artists and the architect can work together to “gain from each other’s design insights and thereby produce a more integrated solution.” In this particular case, the construction is complete and yet only $205,000 of the $1.5 million– about one fifth– of the project’s art fund has been worked out. What I wonder is how the construction got so far along without this issue being resolved. Was GMRC reluctant to comply at some point? Was there a problem in CAHA’s facilitation of the process? Or are there simply too few available and qualified local artists?


Additionally, the law encourages the state agency uses this process as an educational tool by exhibiting proposals and having the selection process and design process made public. Have we missed that opportunity with this project? (If it happened and I just missed it – excuse me.) Will we see the new proposals? Can we see what pieces were selected, without having to go to the hospital? Will the digital images required as documentation of the selected pieces be made available in an online gallery?


As for the selection of artwork, PDN pointed out “Investors can’t just choose local artwork on their own.” This is true. A committee of between five and nine people choose the artwork together. This includes the building owner or a representative of the building owner. It also includes the architect, interior designer, a member of CAHA, a representative from the Mayor’s Council, and two practicing artists. The committee may also include representation from Guam Community College, University of Guam, or Guam Department of Education. Since it is public artwork intended to serve an entire community and not one single person, it is only fair that the community at large is represented. The role of the two practicing artists on the committee (PDN, why was “practicing artists” in quotation marks? What are you insinuating?) is to contribute expertise in determining which proposals or artworks are quality choices. The committee aims to ensure a fair, well-informed selection that does not result in the building owner or CAHA just choosing their buddy.


Some people have called for changes to be made to the law, and discussions have already been held about doing so. If changes are made to the law, I hope the changes do not reduce the budgetary requirements already in place. Instead, I would like to see changes that allow for more flexibility in the way CAHA can utilize these critical funds. Right now, the policy requires that the funds cannot be spent on educational activities. Guam is small. Its population is small, and its artist population is even smaller. Yet there is immense potential for Guam to generate more artists. Events such as Guam Art Exhibit (GAX) and Guam International Film Festival (GIFF) demonstrate that there is interest in the arts, but there is at present a dearth of opportunities for arts education. If a construction project exhausts what it can effectively spend on artwork but has a huge remainder to spend, imagine what that money can do if it could be applied towards educational programming! That money could cover afterschool programs, professional development for arts educators, even fund an arts facility or fly a world-renowned artist out here for a residency. To nurture a developing community of artists on island instead of rewarding contracts and purchases to the same handful of artists time and time again is a much better investment for Guam.


I would personally suggest that we relax the requirement that all art funded by Percent for Art relate to Guam history or Chamorro culture. To limit the subject matter to finite sources of inspiration and interpretation is to limit creative output. Sure, this stipulation would be appropriate to something like the new Guam Museum, but there should be more artistic freedom in other contexts, such as this hospital. Allowing for diversity of subject matter or creative approach is essential to developing Guam’s art scene.


Another concern raised in the article is the idea that developers will be discouraged by having to pay large amounts of money to art. In the case of the hypothetical $500 million project mentioned, how big of a problem would a $5 million arts contribution be to a project that costs half a billion dollars? Again, it is only a single percent of an already enormous budget. I do see how $5 million might be difficult to allocate when the pool of artists living on Guam is so small. Other states larger than us do have a cap, (for example, Massachusetts has a cap of $250,000 and New Mexico $200,000). By contrast, some places actually require more than one percent (San Francisco, for example, requires 2% be spent on art). Looking at the state most comparable to us in size, Rhode Island does have the same 1% requirement, and for buildings under $250,000 the funds are allowed to provide artwork for other buildings. Certainly, the public buildings on Guam that were constructed before this law was instated could benefit from some artwork. In any case, if Guam were to implement a cap, let us keep it high. Not only will Guam be enriched by the art it funds, but that is money that will end up back in the economy. 


Many professional artists do not survive on sales alone; they rely on residencies, contracted projects, grants, and teaching positions. The opportunities provided by Percent for Art laws are enormously crucial to the health of the art world on Guam, and the other twenty-seven states that have it.


Percent for Art may not be perfect. Bureaucracy exists. But this is not a shakedown. For Guam, where opportunities for artists and arts education are scarce, Percent for Art remains a crucial initiative in providing opportunities for local artists and architects, exposure to arts and insights into the design process for the public, and the cultural advancement of our community– and it is the duty of CAHA to enforce the law, and to facilitate the program responsibly.