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City's public art master plan looks ahead to an even more creative city

Sarasota works its way toward a master plan for public art, setting guiding principles for a lot more than roundabouts.

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  • | 4:30 a.m. February 3, 2022
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Art isn’t hard to find in Sarasota.

It's on stages, on walls, on pedestals. Even in crosswalks.

A lot of it is private and belongs to someone. Think The Ringling. 

Ba’al and Yizhaq  on Ringling Boulevard at Golf Street and Links Avenue.
Ba’al and Yizhaq on Ringling Boulevard at Golf Street and Links Avenue.

But some of it was made for everyone, financed through a fee paid by developers when they apply for a city building permit on a $1 million or more project. Or simply donated.

That makes it public art, and that’s where Mary Davis Wallace comes in. As the city’s senior planner for public art, Wallace is spearheading the city’s first public arts master plan, a dynamic blueprint to help leaders make policy through 2030 on a whole museum’s worth of issues.

The first contributions to Sarasota public art occurred through John Ringling back in the 1920s, and the sculptures he donated still decorate St. Armands Circle.  Decades later, Sarasota began its own public art program, and it now has more than 80 pieces of public art on display.  And though the master plan will be the city's first such document, there was an aesthetic-enrichment plan written in the early 1990s with similar goals.

"If we have a plan, if we understand as a community where we want to go, it's only a matter of time before we start seeing great artists coming to our city, more than just what we have," Wallace said. "I mean, we already have great artists. We're going to have art lovers. I feel like we're going to attract the creative class even more. We're going to see  public art program be a real ingredient to the success of our city."

Jumping Fish is in the traffic circle at Palm Avenue and Cocoanut Avenue.
Jumping Fish is in the traffic circle at Palm Avenue and Cocoanut Avenue.

The most recent glimpse into public art took place last week, when the city’s Public Art Committee recommended Sunjin Lim to create the latest traffic circle centerpiece, for Fruitville Road’s intersection with Tamiami Trail.

Wallace said the roundabout art program is one of the most visible examples of public art in the city, but her work in pushing forward a master plan to guide further refinements of the program is likely to engage a wider-still group of stakeholders than people behind the wheel.

After a roundtable with artists and arts administrators in January, business leaders will get a chance to speak up in February about the master plan and the general public in March on what'd they'd like to see.

“I like to see these as conversations," Wallace said. “For the artists, we had a real conversation, you know, we were able to be cordial and respectful. It was actually just a real pleasure to talk to people from the community.

“Everybody was interested and the artists were very supportive."

Garden Sculpture 3  at Orange Avenue and First Street.
Garden Sculpture 3 at Orange Avenue and First Street.

The path of the master plan is expected to take most of the year to write with a stated goal of allowing every resident, visitor or employee to “freely experience quality art and creative expression as part of their daily lives."

"Here's the thing, a master plan isn't really an emotional plan," Wallace said. "It's a framework. It's a way to guide us through the process so that we reach the goals.

"We don't want this plan to be a static document that sits on the shelf, and we pull it out every now and then. We want to start implementing these visions."

Though Sarasota County is not one of them, about 30 jurisdictions (along with Tampa International Airport) have written their own public art master plans, and Wallace said most of them split into two styles.  

Wallace said she hopes the plan she's writing will bridge the difference between something very broad and something very specific.

Embracing our Differences in the traffic circle at Orange Avenue and Main Street.
Embracing our Differences in the traffic circle at Orange Avenue and Main Street.

“There's some master plans that are written that are very general," she said. “They talk about funding, they talk about staffing, they talk about, you know, 'we're going to have this many projects a year.' But there are also master plans that dig into the neighborhoods, they identify opportunity zones and and areas where certain art can take place."

Wallace said she was hoping to end up with a hybrid approach that’s citywide, not just focused on downtown or the bayfront.

Complexus on loan to the Sarasota Museum of Art.
Complexus on loan to the Sarasota Museum of Art.

“So we really do want to dig in and, and maybe even focus into these neighborhoods, into business districts, you know, things like that," Wallace said. “We've got to get it written by the end of the year, but I'm hoping I'm going to have time to get into those details."

The kinds of art recommended in the work-in-progress document includes small to major, done purposely because smaller projects can often move faster than bigger ones, creating forward progress and momentum without always waiting for a major works to be completed.

Etchings or paintings on sidewalks or walls, murals on paved surfaces and rotating exhibits inside City Hall are some of the smaller notions. Cooperation with Sarasota County on potential artwork at Legacy Trail stops is a project that might take a little longer, and integrating art into capital improvement construction projects is another.

And then there are the roundabouts. The Gulfstream Avenue and Tamiami Trail project is moving forward with plans for several more moving through the planning and design process. As members of the Public Art Committee discussed Florida Department of Transportation height limitations on the Fruitville Road submissions, members hoped for more latitude (and altitude) with a project they might be considering in the coming years. 

Nobody’s Listening at the west side of City Hall.
Nobody’s Listening at the west side of City Hall.

The master plan proposal also includes goals designed to create a sustainable source of fundraising and the creation of an “independent community organization whose sole purpose is to support public art in collaboration with the city of Sarasota."

Wallace said Sarasota is uniquely positioned already as a place known for its art and culture. The master plan is designed to support that reputation and broaden it for not only residents but people who might choose to visit.

“I think the people of Sarasota want this to work," she said. “I think the citizens, the visitors, I think people, are really talking to us and saying, we want this. We've been talking about our arts and culture for decades. Why not take it to the next level, you know?"



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