City of Shawnee arts policy stirs up communication issue

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
Shawnee City Commissioners during their meeting Monday.

This week, Shawnee City Commissioners approved an ordinance establishing a commission and budget dedicated to arts in public spaces — but not before the board wrestled for an hour on the agenda item.

The passionate exchange was not about whether to encourage art in the city — board members generally appeared to be in agreement with that. The heart of the matter rested with whether Shawnee residents had been given adequate knowledge of the proposal and enough opportunity to provide input.

The public arts proposal stems from goals included in the city's 2040 Comprehensive Plan that was finalized and approved in October.

“As emphasized in the Comp Plan, the necessity for public art in our community dovetail with the enhancement of our community image, civic health, equity and economic development,” City Planner Rebecca Blaine said.

As far back as 2017 when the Comp Plan was being developed, the public was invited to offer feedback at numerous discussions, planning sessions as well as an online public survey; sessions were organized and held at multiple places and times throughout the city, she said.

But was that was then, and Ward 2 City Commissioner Bob Weaver said he wants input from residents now.

“I went to one of those meetings and for some reason I didn't feel it was necessary or I had other things (to do) or whatever, it doesn't mean I didn't care,” he said. “But it does mean I wasn't involved in that.”

The opportunity was there, he said, and everyone else had the opportunity.

“Just because we don't take advantage of the opportunity doesn't mean that we just run over everybody without having that additional communication — something more than a notice on a Friday before a commission (meeting) on Monday — that we are going to do something that affects (residents),” he said.

Ward 5 City Commissioner Mark Sehorn said people get involved in stuff when it directly affects them.

“They're pretty complacent to let people make decisions for them when they think it won't affect them,” he said.

Sehorn said he doesn't know what the right way is regarding how to reach everybody or get them involved.

“Hopefully we can get better at communicating, because I think we're pretty poor at it,” he said.

Once the tussle regarding communication — or lack thereof — was set aside for the time-being, commissioners approved the public arts ordinance 5-1-1; Ward 6 City Commissioner Ben Salter voted no and Weaver abstained, citing he wasn't against the policy itself, only the way the item was being handled.

Similar to Oklahoma City's public arts policy, Shawnee's plan will designate one percent of total construction costs to public art, Blaine said — an ordinance similar to the city's longstanding landscaping requirements.

The Planning Department will now begin the process of seeking out applicants to serve on a Shawnee Arts and Culture Commission.

Specific attributes will be sought to comprise the seven-member board:

• one member shall represent a local art and/or cultural organization;

• four members shall be professional artists, performers, and/or architects or landscape architects; and

• two members will be at-large Shawnee residents

Blaine said some of the qualifications are pretty specific, which is why the city chose not to require Shawnee residency from certain potential members.

At the beginning of the meeting, local business owner Theresa Cody said she appreciated the opportunity to ask questions about the arts proposal — and, subsequently, poor interaction between the city and its residents.

“The commission meetings give the public a great opportunity as citizens to exercise their right to free speech,” she said.

Cody said she believes public art is a big deal and should be a big deal to everyone in the community.

“This is probably the one thing that could actually bring this community together to understand who we are as a community,” she said. 

Art could actually give Shawnee true branding, she said.

But concerns rose as she felt the lines of communication were broken.

“If we want this to work it is a must to engage with the people, because without the people we have no identity,” Cody said. 

By asking a half dozen questions Cody said she believes she was able to get the thought process started.

“No, the commission didn't  answer my questions and I didn't expect they would,” Cody said. “Those questions are out there and I think they will have to find the answers at some point.”

She said when the commission takes a public position of that magnitude, they are expected to represent the public.

“It is a must to find new creative ways to communicate with the citizens of this city,” she said.

Watch for updates and more details about the issue in a future edition of The Shawnee News-Star.

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.