Like giant Mardi Gras masks, four seven-foot-tall faces of woven bronze peer westward from a lawn outside Talkington Hall, a recently opened student residence building on the Lubbock campus of Texas Tech University.
They are the work of Michael Stutz, a California-based sculptor who installed the $350,000 “Four Faces” earlier this month. “To me, they are a celebration of that space,” he said. “They represent the idea of diversity. And they are interactive. They are meant for people to come up and pose with them.”
As Stutz set up his sculptures, about 375 miles away in Austin, James Turrell — fresh off simultaneous retrospectives in New York, Los Angeles and Houston — prepared to unveil his newest skyspace, a natural light observatory, at the University of Texas at Austin. Turrell’s fee was $612,000 for the piece, which cost more than $1.5 million to construct.
Both projects were financed through percent-for-art policies, which direct a small percentage, typically 1 percent, of the budgets of campus construction projects to public art. Such policies are becoming increasingly common at Texas public universities, and campus leaders say they contribute to the vibrancy of their institutions.
Of the state’s six major university systems, half — Texas Tech University System, the University of Houston System and Texas State University System — apply the policy systemwide, but all of the other three have at least one institution that subscribes to the practice.
“To be frank, I think it is one of the best regents rules we have,” Chancellor Brian McCall of the Texas State University System said, noting that his system’s regents had adopted the program unanimously not long before he arrived in 2010.
“It ensures that we don’t have a postwar East German-type sterile, unappealing construction that people don’t want to be around,” he said, adding that he would cut other aspects of a project’s budget before he cut the 1 percent for art. “It civilizes the place and adds vitality and liveliness.”
Turrell’s installation is the most ambitious project to date for UT-Austin’s Landmarks program, which is directed by Andrée Bober.
She said that in addition to providing aesthetic improvements to the campus, such programs fulfill an academic mission. “It serves a purpose of providing a primary resource to our faculty and students about these major artistic trends in recent art history,” she said, “but it doesn’t have to stay in the classroom.”
Stutz observed that the university environment could also enhance the art. “On a college campus, people are really focused,” he said. “So it allows for a different interaction with pieces.”
The first public university in the state to enact such a policy was the University of Houston in 1966, and the policy has expanded as the system has grown. After about two initial decades of slow growth, the UH System’s public art collection has flourished and now includes more than 400 pieces.
“I don’t imagine anybody could have thought it would become what it is,” said Michael Guidry, the curator of the UH System’s collection. He estimated that over the policy’s nearly five decades, nearly $30 million has been spent on the art.
A challenge that such public art programs face, Bober said, is getting people to understand that the art they see every day on campus is part of a carefully curated collection — and where the resources come from.
When lawmakers debated financing for campus construction projects during the regular session this year, few if any were aware that they were also talking about investments with the potential to trigger more than $10 million in public art financing.
“I was not aware of that,” said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who just completed his first session as chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “It never came up.”
He said he planned to develop a deeper understanding of the various elements of campus construction during the next session.