Three, 20-foot lanterns stand in front of Denver County’s troubled jail in a bleak industrial area off Havana Street and Smith Road, but the artist and city say the roughly $200,000 taxpayers spent on the public art could help take a bite out of crime.

“The art suggests fresh ways of interpreting the experiences of people who live and work in this area,” “Havana Lanterns” creator David Griggs was quoted in a city news release. “By revealing these opportunities, the art can suggest alternatives to recidivism, and it can reflect upon hope, renewal, and inspiration of new beginnings.”

In 1988, then-Mayor Federico Peña signed an executive order requiring all building projects that cost $1 million or more to dedicate 1 percent to public art, and since then Denver taxpayers have paid nearly $32 million for sometimes controversial art projects, city records show. In 1991, the City Council passed an ordinance mirroring Peña’s executive order for new building projects, which are often funded by bond issues and tax increase initiatives.

Another $1.7 million in public art is in the process of being created and installed throughout the city, according to a spreadsheet of projects Watchdog.org obtained.

Colorado Union of Taxpayers president Gregory Golyansky said public art is a complete waste of money and shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

“I reject out of hand spending any money on art,” he said. “These projects have to be funded with private funds… I’ve never seen one piece funded by government that I like.”

But Michael Chavez, who runs the city’s program, said public art is key to making Denver a great city.

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