Morristown Approves 1 Percent for Art in Redevelopment Project

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Last week Morristown joined New York City, Philadelphia and the state of New Jersey in approving the town’s first redevelopment project that would include “a percent for art.” That is, 1 percent of the project’s budget — but no more than $100,000 — will be dedicated to funding public art works and their long-term maintenance. It’s a real coup for the county’s arts council.

“We’re hoping that this program at the municipality level becomes a model for municipalities throughout the county and throughout the state,” says Morris Arts Executive Director Tom Werder.

Arts funding can be quick to land on the chopping block during budget negotiations, and foundation and government funding is spread thin, so a dedicated funding source can be seen as ideal. But why the push for public art? Town planner Philip Abramson of Topology NJ, LLC points to creative placemaking.

“To me, it’s a place that engenders a certain emotional response in you. That you are some place that either makes you in awe, or makes you feel happy, or makes you feel welcomed,” explains Abramson. “You know, a lot of apartments and a lot of big buildings don’t make a great town. It’s all the stuff that’s in between and the life that happens in between the buildings that matters.”

One hundred thousand dollars can sound like a hefty price tag, and whether this would deter development companies remains to be seen. But Director of Arts in Community at Morris Arts, Kadie Dempsey, says it could be a public relations win.

“I would hope that it would actually give the community, and the stakeholders in the community, a feeling towards the developer that they’re not just coming here to build these million-dollar condominiums and get out and not care about Morristown,” Dempsey says.

While Abramson says any correlation between property values and public art hasn’t been widely studied, he reminds that 1 percent or $100,000 for the building projects should be looked at in perspective.

The projects that we’re talking about here…we’re not talking about a single-family home has to put a painting outside,” Abramson says. “These buildings, they’re not $10 million buildings. They’re $30 million, $60 million, very high-budget buildings. And in a $60 million budget, the choice of windows can be $100,000.”

Like Werder, Mayor Tim Dougherty says he hopes the program serves as a template for other municipalities, and he’s already jokingly laid down the gauntlet to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop at a press conference earlier this week to follow in Morristown’s footsteps.

“It’s a positive for everybody,” says Dougherty. “It’s a win-win.”

Werder says this approval is the first step, and details like the artist selection process will be ironed out in the months ahead.