Public art should be representative of the community that supports it, and a giant piece of coral is not. That was the message Sarasota City Commission sent to the city’s Public Art Committee during its Monday meeting when it unanimously rejected the PAC’s recommendation of Dwell for installation in the roundabout at Tamiami Trail and Fruitville Road, sending the matter back to the committee for further consideration.
Included in the commissioners’ packet, though, were the other two finalists: Whorligig, a stainless steel representation of three orchids by Mark Aeling of St. Petersburg, and Open Gate, a blue stylized archway made of architectural glass over a steel structure by Shan Shan Sheng of San Francisco.
While the PAC favored Dwell, Commissioner Hagen Brody led the opposition to the sculpture in part because it was not representative of Sarasota, pointing out there are no coral reefs anywhere nearby.
“It's a piece of coral that we don't have on the Gulf Coast,” Brody said. “One of my concerns about our public art — and please take this back to your board — is it in my opinion should bear some relation to our community. If you're doing natural pieces of art like this natural specimen, they should have some relation to our region or our community.”
Brody further pointed out that none of the public art installed in Sarasota pays homage to the city’s deeply rooted circus history. He suggested to Mary Davis Wallace, the city’s senior planner and leader of the Office of Public Art, that an emphasis on that history should be included in the under-development public art master plan. But in the meantime, it should also be considered in the city’s public art program.
Public art is not paid for by the city’s taxpayers but instead is financed by a fund that includes fees paid by developers of construction projects of $1 million or more, plus donations. The PAC issues RFQ’s for public art projects, vets submissions and ultimately recommends options to commissioners, who have the final say in the matter.
Commissioners wondered aloud why the singular recommendation of Dwell instead of the usual three.
“I was hoping in this different RFQ process that we would bring a single selection to you, a single recommendation,” Wallace said. “That way, the efficacy of the Public Art Committee is preserved. It's difficult when the public art committee makes a decision, but then we go back to the drawing board when we bring it to commission.”
Wallace told commissioners the committee didn’t favor Whorligig because it is a complex piece that might encourage pedestrians to cross the roundabout to more closely study it and that its metal edges could pose a safety hazard should someone decide to climb it. She compared it to another piece of metal sculpture, Jumping Fish, located in the roundabout at Palm and Cocoanut avenues.
“I can’t attest to that. Maybe after hours,” Wallace replied. "It’s not a sharp piece.”
Brody then asked Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson, a former deputy police chief, “Has anyone tried climbing the art?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” he replied.
Having been made aware that consideration of all three submissions in the packet were at the discretion of commission, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said her preference was Open Gate.
“It’s an open gate to the world of Sarasota, its natural beauty and treasured wildlife and an open gate to love and respect our growing community, our environment and our nation,” she said. “It was those sorts of sentiments that spoke to me.”
Said Mayor Erik Arroyo prior to requesting a motion on the matter, “I liked Whorligig, and I liked Open Gate.”
With the public art master plan still a year away, commissioners retasked Wallace, Lerner and the PAC: to consider more than just something pretty to look at and be sure the master plan includes local relevance. In the interim, make certain public art options presented to the commissioners — starting with the Tamiami Trail-Fruitville Road roundabout piece — include the same.
“Let’s make a good decision here,” Brody said. “I’d rather make a good decision than a quick one.”