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Artist rendition of "Scratch, by Matt Babcock.

One dog-gone expensive hound is slated to be stationed near the entrance to Missoula’s newest dog park.

The $25,000 aluminum abstract dog sculpture, called “Scratch,” is slated to be installed as public art at the new Montana Rail Link Park, where a small section is set aside for four-footed friends. The sculpture, to be installed along Johnson Street this spring, is the work of Seattle-based artist Matt Babcock.

The 5-foot, 4-inch sculpture is a little more than a foot taller than what Babcock originally proposed, but grew at the request of the Missoula Public Art Committee, which wanted it to stand out a little more. It will be erected on top of a slight mound.

It was one of 13 submissions received after the Public Art Committee put out a regional request for proposals. Those 13 projects were narrowed first to four, then two, which included Helena-based ceramic artist Chip Clawson.

Courtney LeBlanc, a member of the art committee, said Babcock’s sculpture was the only one that included a reference to dogs, which was something her group appreciated.

“We all liked the dog element because the Franklin to the Fort community wanted a dog park within the MRL Park,” LeBlanc said. “We felt it was a good representation of the area, and of the people who live there. It was a fitting piece in the park itself.”

A few howls were raised over the $25,000 price tag, which doesn’t include the $2,000 set aside for installation of the sculpture. That $2,000 will cover staff time toward the installation, and up to $1,000 for materials, for a total of $27,000.

“$27,000 — are you kidding me!!!!!” John Foley wrote in an email Tuesday to the city council. He didn’t respond to an email seeking further comment.

Who is paying for the $25,000 dog is a little confusing, because it’s tax dollars but not general fund tax dollars. Here’s how it works:

Missoula has a long-standing Percent for Public Art ordinance, which mandates that on eligible city capital projects, 1.5 percent of the construction costs must be set aside for public art. The capital projects include construction or remodeling of any public or city building, structure or park.

The Montana Rail Link Park falls under that designation, and its $1.7 million budget included $19,914 to be set aside for public art in two locations, according to Annette Marchesseault with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. A portion of that, about $7,400, needed to be set aside for maintenance, leaving roughly $12,500 for the art.

One of the twists here is the entire park construction budget came from Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, funds in urban renewal districts. These districts are formed when an area officially is deemed “blighted.” At that point, the tax base of the district is recorded and any increase in tax revenues are put into the TIF fund, and can only be used within the district to spiff up the area so more development will be drawn to it. Eventually, those upgrades end the “blighted” designation, and after a set period of time, the district is dissolved and all the tax dollars then go into the city’s general fund.

In this case, the TIF money designated through the Percent for Public Art ordinance wasn’t enough scratch to pay for Scratch. So the Montana Redevelopment Agency, which administers the TIF dollars, put up another $12,500 in TIF funds to cover the rest of the cost.

“They (the art committee) felt that for $12,500 it would be difficult to solicit any art of any importance,” Marchesseault said. “So they asked the MRA board for an additional $12,500.”

The MRA board approved the funding last July.

LeBlanc said the committee believed that $25,000 was a fair price for the artist, who not only has to purchase the materials, but also create and install the work.

“We look for pieces that would fit into the community and be a focal point; something for people to talk about and start a local conversation about art,” LeBlanc said. “The selection was incredibly difficult for us because the choices were all really good. There were a few animals, some completely interpretive ones and some that embody nature and the world around us.

“The piece that we are getting is very good, and we need to pay for it to be up to standards. Part of our mission includes artists getting paid fairly for their work.”

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