Art on the walls, but not by students

Detroit Public Schools are losing students to charter, suburban and private schools, forcing schools to close and programs like art and music to be cut. But the district spent at least $1.6 million on professional art, all of it going to a gallery owner who takes a 20 to 50 percent commission. The Detroit Free Press has a photo of an uninspiring work.

At Cass Tech High School, for example, artist Nora Chapa Mendoza was commissioned to create work showing the school’s legacy of excellence. One piece depicts past principals.

The district isn’t sure how much it spent out of a $1.5 billion bond designed to refurbish schools or how much art was purchased. Teachers and parents say fixing leaky roofs should come first.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    We have a silly law here that public buildings need to spend a half percent of their contract on “Works of Art.”
    One Architect just declared that all the lobby furnishings were works of art.
    Given my druthers, I would say only donated works of art.

  2. Does this tie in to the story regarding removal of elementary student artworks from school halls as a fire hazard?

  3. Alex Bensky says:

    There’s more. A couple of years ago some philanthropist offered the city $200 million–that’s two hundred million dollars–for the development of charter schools.

    And the district turned it down, partly under pressure from the teachers’ union but also because the board wouldn’t have full control over the schools.

  4. wayne martin says:

    More on the point posted by Alex Bensky:

    DPS schools and the unions need to be dismantled. They pissed away for the most part a 1,200,000,000 (no typos on zeros) bond back in the 90’s to renovate 60 schools and to build 3 of the most expensive schools in the country, ever (Cass Tech, Renissance, Performing arts HS). And we already know what has happened with CT, leaking celings, foundation cracks, gopher sized holes in the football field. CT will fall apart faster than the cookie cutter homes in the exurbs. And all 3 look exactly the same, they look like a boring suburban office building.
    The main reason I don’t live in the city anymore is DPS and the Unions. The tipping point was the 200M the gentleman from Plymouth was going to donate to Detroit for charter schools. But King Kwame and Jenny from the block decided their jobs and union money was more important than the kids and residents of Detroit.

    h t t p : / /

    Publication: Crain’s Detroit Business
    Publication Date: 19-JAN-04
    Delivery: Immediate Online Access
    Author: Bailey, Laura

    Article Excerpt
    Byline: Laura Bailey

    In December 2002, when philanthropist Robert Thompson offered to spend $200 million to build 15 charter schools in Detroit, he never dreamed the gesture would dissolve into a bitter political battle infused with allegations of racism and suburban meddling in city affairs.

    Ultimately, after months of fighting between those who supported the donation and those who felt it would further erode Detroit’s school system, Thompson, 71, a former paving magnate and chairman of the philanthropic Thompson Foundation, withdrew his offer in October.

    Thompson’s gift – and its subsequent withdrawal – ignited uncompromising emotional and political debate from both camps on the issue of school reform. The fact that $200 million got away from the city of Detroit and its children drew local and national criticism.

    The debate over the issue consumed most of the year, and Thompson will spend at least part of 2004 deciding what to do…

    NOTE: All illustrations and photos have been removed from this article.

    h t t p : / /

    The plan to develop 15 new charter schools in Detroit may be dead in its tracks after the philanthropist funding the project says he’s decided not to move forward with the plans, Local 4 reported.

    Businessman and philanthropist Robert Thompson was to spend $200 million from his foundation on 15 new charter schools in Detroit.
    Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion Thursday that legislation to create the schools has become law, even though Gov. Jennifer Granholm sent it back to legislators at their request.

    The new law would have allowed Thompson’s foundation to spend the money to develop the schools.

    But Thompson said Thursday that the ruling by Cox was likely to cause more anger and hostility over his plans, so he decided to withdraw his proposal, Local 4 reported.

    The Detroit Federation of Teachers held a massive rally at the Capitol last week to protest the addition of any new charter schools statewide.

    More than 100,000 Detroit public school students had the day off as their teachers skipped school to fight the proposal for more charter schools in the city, Local 4 reported.

    The articles don’t point out that the actual cost of these projects is effectively twice the construction costs.

  5. And they complain about not having funds to teach art.

    If they have to spend 0.5% of construction on public art, they should spend it on having children design and create the art. Have a contest. Make it big.

  6. This is SOP for DPS.

    There’s hardly a month, sometimes a week, that doesn’t go by without a fresh scandal, outrage, revelation of incompetence or other disaster from the DPS.

    It’s been a clown show for twenty-five years at least and shows no signs of changing. Fortunately, the dubious benefits of attendance has been avoided by about 25% of Detroit kids who go to charters, other districts and various flavors of private school.

  7. wayne martin says:

    > The Detroit Federation of Teachers held a massive rally at
    > the Capitol last week to protest the addition of any new
    > charter schools statewide.

    Well, Teachers’ Union in the middle of the mud, again.

    When I first read this article, it seemed like to me that fraud and theft of art were going to be its focus. However, the author didn’t seen to see the obvious possibilities:

    > Despite repeated requests by the Free Press, the district has
    > not released an inventory of the art or invoices for the purchases.

    How hard would it be for someone in purchasing to pull the invoices for these purchases? Perhaps if there were computer system, it might be a little hard. Is there a central purchasing computer for the DPS?

    > Washington said she supplied art and artists to the district for
    > commissioned pieces, and delivered and installed them. In some cases,
    > she stored the art until schools were finished. She said she took a
    > 20% to 50% commission, depending on the artists and the artwork.

    Certainly a reputable art dealer would be able to provide copies of her billing statements/invoices for these purchases? And certainly a reputable art dealer should be able to provide an inventory of all art currently being stored on her premises? Maybe there’s no fraud here—but don’t be surprised if there turns out there is.

    Spending 1% (or thereabouts) on art for a public school is simply insane.

    The idea of student-provided art is very attractive. Suppose for instance, that there were an area in each school that was dedicated to the purpose of something akin to an “art park”. Student art could be displayed which would help to build esprit-de-corps for the students (not to mention self-esteem building for the student artists). For high schools, challenging each entering class of freshmen to create a piece of “class art” which would be enshrined in the “art park” as right-of-passage out of high school–a “legacy building” exercise for each class.

    Just another example of out-of-control government running amuck in the public education system.

  8. If the accountability on the money spent to fix the leaky roofs (or replace flourescent ballasts) had been that vague, it would be treated as a major scandal.

  9. Absolutely, Wayne Martin–

    A school should reflect the best of its students.
    It ought to at least appear to belong to them — in some way.

    High schools are full of talented artists — many of them undiscovered even by their teachers. Often these are the boys not doing well in math and English class. Art can act as a bridge across their feelings of alienation, their insecurities about their academic abilities. It can wake them up. The opportunity for recognition can be a powerful tool.

    Buying art at the expense of student art materials and classes is obscene.

  10. Indigo Warrior says:

    That is not how educrats think. For them, children are mindless robots that can only passively absorb ideas, and any sign of real creativity is pathological. The fact that high schools (and for that matter, middle and elementary schools) are full of talented artists doesn’t mean that everyone is a talented artist, and to admit that would be “elitist”. Besides, who knows what un-PC blasphemy the kids will come up with in their art?


  1. Detroit Public Schools – Financial Geniuses, or Wh…

    Here at world-famous Wonderwood Academy (“Where the Leaders of Tomorrow are Whupping Their Principal Academically Today”) we have also purchased tons of art, most of which adorns our 17 cubic foot refrigerator….