When it comes to developer-funded public art acquisitions and installations, Mary Davis Wallace says it is best handled by the professionals.
That’s why since she joined the city in 2021 as its public art manager she has been working to “flip” the balance toward cash and away from in-kind contributions to the city’s public art collection.
Wallace won the unanimous support of the Sarasota City Commission for her seven-year Public Art Plan 2023, which depends wholly on doubling the fee paid by developers of commercial projects from 0.5% to 1% of construction investment on projects that invest $1 million or more to build. Wallace, Planning Director Steve Cover and supporters told commissioners the increase would bring the city more in line with other regional jurisdictions competing with Sarasota’s lofty public art status.
“We're in a competition, and a lot of other communities have raised the stakes to 1% and higher,” said Public Art Committee member Jonathan Parks. “It's amazing that we've been able to hold on to our title as the arts city in Florida, when everybody else is coming after us.”
That contribution to ensure the preservation and advancement of the city’s arts legacy and reputation can come in the form of cash into the public art fund or an installation of the developer’s own choosing on its site.
Wallace said she has been working to bring the cash, and with it more control, in house.
“We’re trying to flip it so that we have more cash, but still we're able to work with the development community to realize their vision, if they have a vision” she said. “A lot of times they want to just support the program, but that takes outreach and community building and a lot of engagement. You don't want to just cut them out. This is reframing the program to say let the experts take it and let us do the work. That's where the flip is happening.”
One tenet of the plan, approved by the commission at its Aug. 21 meeting, is to encourage, but not require, developers to contribute cash to the program, which will not only fund art acquisition via the city’s Public Art Committee, but also to ensure care and maintenance of the pieces going forward. Otherwise, that maintenance of new in-kind installations will be codified by ordinance.
“Developers have said they want to put art on their property, and then there hasn't been a lot of dedication to maintaining that art,” Wallace said. "Some of the art we have added over the last decade is starting to languish, and that's one of the reasons why in the plan I talked directly to the developer saying there's not a lot of maintenance in our ordinance, and that's getting ready to change because we need people to understand they’re ensuring that they’re maintaining it in perpetuity.”
Cash vs. in-kind contributions to public art ebbs and flows from year to year based on completed construction projects and developers’ choice, and the sample size since Wallace’s arrival is too brief to draw conclusions. Anecdotally, though, she said her outreach to developers is beginning to show. Prior to and including 2020, in-kind typically heavily outweighed cash.
In 2020, $268,719 in cash was contributed vs. $517,815 in developer-purchased art. In 2021, $350,177 in cash was collected against $153,930 in-kind. That was reversed in 2022 with $244,259 in cash against $649,750 in-kind installations. For fiscal year 2023, though, the city collected $470,239 in cash with zero in-kind art purchases.
How much will be contributed to public art once the doubling of the fee is implemented is difficult to estimate, and that likely won’t happen until fiscal year 2025. In the interim, the new fee has to be incorporated into zoning text amendments, which will require the usual labyrinth of workshops and public hearings.
During the commission discussion about the Public Art Plan, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted she has received no pushback from the development community about the prospect of doubling the public art contribution. Wallace said that’s because, in general, developers understand that perpetuating the city’s arts reputation contributes to continued growth.
"I've had the opportunity to work with several developers in the last two-and-a-half years — which is why there has been an increase in cash funding — who are very supportive of this process,” Wallace said. “They understand the value that public art plays in their success. I don't know how you can’t say here is a direct relationship between having a vibrant, unique, exciting city and your product.
“I only had one developer that even questioned it, and they understood and acknowledged that this was a good move for the city.”