Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey speaks during an informational hearing on Tuesday about improving the system for allocating capital projects funds for public art. Image via CharmTV Baltimore.

A law requiring Baltimore City to allocate 1% of capital construction costs towards public art has been on the books since 1964, but Councilman Ryan Dorsey (District 3) said “it’s been a challenge for many years” to ensure that city government follows it.

“It’s an old law,” he said. “It’s been on the books for more than half a century, and the folks who brought it about are no longer in our government.”

Members of the council’s Ways and Means committee and representatives of various city agencies discussed how to improve the administration of the “1% for Art” program, which generates about $700,000 a year, during an informational hearing on Tuesday.

In 1964, Baltimore City became the second city in the United States to pass a “1% for Art” law, said Jocquelyn Downs, director of the Arts Council with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA).

Downs said that “Baltimore was one of the pioneers” for implementing their method for funding public art, which other cities have since used as a model for their own public arts programs.

Baltimore Public Art Commission chair Aaron Bryant said Baltimore was “well ahead of the curve” in 1964, before the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bryant said federally-funded arts and humanities programs were able to “transform communities, particularly communities that were suffering from racial segregation, that were dealing with civil rights issues.”

The Baltimore City Council in 2007 created the Public Art Commission, tasked with administering the public arts program, but “there has been little if any legislative oversight to review for proper compliance with the law,” according to Council Bill 21-0023R.

BOPA reviews city Board of Estimates agendas, compiles lists of what it believes are projects eligible to contribute 1% of funds towards public art, and agencies respond with which projects are in fact eligible, Wentz said.

But Dorsey said BOPA should not have to seek out that money retroactively. Instead, he said it should be built into each capital projects contract.

“Rather than having to figure these things and perhaps negotiate numbers on the back end, agencies are supposed to have the responsibility to include 1% in every single contract over $100,000 that comes before the Board of Estimates.”

Bryant said the commission would like the city to automatically designate the public art allocation as a line item in capital construction projects.

“We think this would be a more efficient and consistent way of adhering to the city ordinance for public art to ensure that BOPA and the city receives the funding for public art as the ordinance stipulates,” Bryant said.

But Marcia Collins of the Department of Public Works said it is not always as cut and dry as setting aside 1% of a project’s total budget towards public art.

“The funding for water and wastewater capital projects are different from many agencies’ capital programs in that they are funded through an enterprise fund which means, as you point out, the rate payers are funding the use of that money and it has to be dedicated to the operation and maintenance of the system,” Collins said.

For example, water infrastructure projects at Lake Ashburton and Druid Lake are receiving money from the state revolving loan program, she said.

Long-range capital projects that take multiple years to complete receive funding through the state revolving loan program, which is federally allocated funding to the states and creates issues with the “1% for Art” program, Collins said.

Collins said the DPW has been working with BOPA to try to agree upon a fixed amount of money based on funding that is not affected or limited, but she said the department does not want to get ahead of efforts to improve the public art funding allocation system as a whole.

Dorsey said that agencies have tried to “inject themselves” into the public art commission’s decisions about which public art projects should receive funding from the 1% of their capital project.

In some cases, a piece of public art may be created next to or nearby the site of the capital project that it derives its funding from, but that is not always the case and the public art commission is able to use the funds as they see fit, Dorsey said.

Downs said that over the past three years, most of the funding through the “1% for Art” program has “strictly been tied” to specific capital projects. She said that has been pretty limiting and it doesn’t allow the [public art commission] to do the job they were intended to do.”

Downs added that the funds are not only able to be used for new pieces of art, but also for the maintenance of Baltimore’s approximately 360 existing public artworks.

“I just hope we can get on the same page and have a streamlined process and the flexibility and understanding of how this should be applied and not have the money tethered just specifically to that agency,” she said.

Comptroller Bill Henry said he has directed the city’s Department of Audits to review all applicable construction projects that come to the Board of Estimates to ensure they comply with the 1% for Art program.

“Specifically, they will be looking for both the amount allocated for Public Art and a description of the project as approved by the Public Art Commission, and we also encourage all agencies to utilize local artists for each project,” Henry said in a statement.

Henry added that BOPA invoiced city agencies $689,252.55 for FY19. BOPA is in the process of collecting funds.

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at