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Statue ruling questioned

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  • | 4:00 a.m. August 20, 2009
  • Sarasota
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After the Public Art Committee rejected a proposal to keep the controversial sculpture “Unconditional Surrender” on the bayfront for at least 10 years, supporters of the sailor statue said they felt committee members had already made up their minds before the Aug. 12 hearing.

“I’m not surprised at the decision,” said Dr. Rich Swier, president of the Sarasota County Veterans Commission. “They were just looking for a reason to turn this down.”

An 88-year-old World War II veteran approached Swier in May wanting to buy “Unconditional Surrender” for $500,000 and donate it to the city, but only if it remains on the bayfront.

The Public Art Committee denied the proposal, ruling that the sculpture did not meet the standards of public art, which dictate, among other things, that the piece must be an original work. Committee members felt because it is modeled after a famed Life magazine photo, it was not an original.

The chairwoman of the Public Art Committee, Virginia Hoffman, has not tried to hide her personal feelings about “Unconditional Surrender,” previously calling it “worse than kitsch.”

But supporters of the sculpture are latching onto user comments on a page on the social networking Web site Facebook. The page is called “Higher Standards for Sarasota,” which is an anti-sailor-statue page.

Some examples of comments on the page include:

“A group seriously believes this gigantic lawn ornament is ‘educating’ the groups of people who come and look at it. Please!”

“I’m just waiting for a big wind from the South to blow that big cartoon into the nearby intersection and block evacuations from Longboat Key.”

The last commenter went on to say elected officials were too busy to understand fine art.

Hoffman posted that the commenter had “good insights.”

Some of her other page comments have caused sculpture supporters to question her impartiality.

The comments include: praising a Sarasota Herald-Tribune letter to the editor in which the author said they feel “ashamed when I gaze at the gaudy” statue.

And references to sculpture opponents as “intelligent, reasonable and rational” and supporters as showing “contempt for artists” and resorting to the “lowest common denominator.”

Hoffman said there is no conflict of interest.

“Being on the board does not supercede my freedom of speech,” she said. “I can say anything to anyone, except the four other people (on the Public Art Committee), because of the Sunshine Laws.”

City Auditor and Clerk Billy Robinson, who oversees the city’s advisory boards, agrees.

“Anybody can express their opinion,” he said.

Although the Art Committee rejected the veteran’s donation, the City Commission gets the final word, and it will hold a public hearing on the issue next month.


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