The City Council could learn a lesson from 19th-century Belgium

By the time you read this, the Tucson city elections will be over, and we'll all know whether Steve Kozachik pulled the upset over Nina Trasoff, if Ben Buehler-Garcia came close enough to put a scare into Karin Uhlich, and if Shaun McClusky pulled even 30 percent against Steve Leal's anointed successor, Richard Fimbres. Then there's also that pesky Proposition 200, which would make the city of Tucson safer or bankrupt, or both.

I'm writing this the weekend before the election and pondering the possibilities. (Hey, what if all three Republicans won, but Prop 200 lost? What then?) Whatever the outcome of the vote, it's going to be interesting to see what the City Council does with downtown.

Even if the incumbents (and I count Fimbres in that number) get re-elected, there's no way that they'll be able to continue with the Pushme-Pullyou, scattershot approach to revitalization. They're going to have to scale back, set priorities, stick to them and, most of all, stop trying to be everything to everybody. It's human nature to want to be generous (and to be liked for being generous), but the days of free spending and pet projects are long gone.

It's probably not a lot of fun to be elected to office, only to find that you only have three major obligations: maintaining healthy police and fire departments, fixing the streets and figuring out ways to pay for the two aforementioned items. Even if Prop 200 didn't pass, the budget shortfall will force the council to severely narrow its focus.

I recently came across a story in The Economist that might be helpful. In 1850, the relatively new country of Belgium (which had gained its independence from the Netherlands two decades earlier) was looking to make a name for itself in the European community and the world. Aware of this, an artist named Antoine Wiertz offered the fledgling government a deal: He would trade his biggest paintings in exchange for the government providing him with a studio. This was a bold step by Wiertz, because, for centuries, artists had been supported by individuals and/or families who were patrons of the arts, but not by governments.

Somewhat surprisingly, the government went for the deal. It paid a lot of money to build a "huge, comfortable and well-lit" studio that would, after Wiertz's death, display his works for all time. (The Economist calls the deal "a masterclass in maladministration.") Wiertz was actually moderately successful for a while. Some of his paintings were well-received in Rome, and Belgians went gaga over such paintings as "Premature Burial," in which a terrified man tries to escape from the coffin in which he is about to be entombed; "Ravishing of a Belgian Woman," in which an assault victim—completely naked but somehow armed with a pistol—blows her attacker's brains out (in vivid detail); and "Hunger, Madness and Crime," in which a peasant woman brandishes a bloody knife as the leg of her infant sticks out of the cooking pot. (Nowadays, we just have people who pee on crucifixes.)

Wiertz was able to play the politicians like a freakin' fiddle. When his work was panned by critics in Paris, Wiertz published a manifesto calling for Brussels to become "capital of Europe," leaving Paris as a second-rate "provincial" town. His little hissy fit earned him a medal from the Belgian government.

He toiled away in his government-provided studio and was rather prolific, if not altogether good at what he did. He even died in that studio, in 1865. After his death, the Belgian government was left with 220 of his works. (He was also an equally inept sculptor.) In accepting Wiertz's estate, the Belgian parliament acceded to the artist's demands that his paintings never be moved, loaned out or put in storage. According to his wishes, they should "remain invariably fixed" to the walls of the studio the government had provided for him.

For a few decades, it wasn't a horrible deal for the Belgian government. Back in the 1920s, the Wiertz Museum attracted a couple hundred people per day. These days, maybe 10 people a day wander in ... and then scurry out. Nevertheless, the government is bound by honor and duty to keep the museum open. Indeed, as long as there is a Belgium, there must be a Wiertz Museum.

These days, Belgian officials try to put a pretty face on the deal, explaining that while his art is stinko, the museum gives visitors the opportunity to step into an authentic (overpriced) 19th-century art studio.

One interesting note: Back when Wiertz was scamming the government into becoming a patron of his "art," the place where his studio was to be built for him was out on the fringe of Brussels, in a sparsely populated area. In his written request to the government, he predicted that the area would someday become "the centre of an immense and rich population." Today, only a stone's throw from the museum are the towers that house the European Parliament. The buildings are officially on Rue Wiertz.

The piece in The Economist was designed to be a cautionary tale about the Obama administration and its rush to form partnerships with institutions that should flourish or crumble without any governmental intervention.

I kinda took it another way.

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